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Jewish World Review April 28, 2000 /23 Nissan, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Down the memory hole

http://www.jewishworldreview.com --       The boy was in a closet in the arms of Dalrymple, the fisherman who had been a constant presence at the house.

An agent wearing helmet and body armor and holding an automatic rifle pulled the boy from Dalrymple's arms. The agent, Dalrymple said, pointed the rifle at him as Elian cried, "No! No! No!''

Elian's eyes were wide open. He cried and seemed terrified as all around him people screamed, cursed and fought against a line of federal agents who formed a wall with shields and automatic weapons as a cloud of tear gas and pepper spray wafted down the street.

In all, the operation took about three minutes.

-- Rick Bragg, New York Times      

TWENTY-FOUR HOURS after the raid in the predawn hours -- isn't that when they always come? -- the Justice Department released the text of the sealed search warrant it had obtained from a federal magistrate, the piece of paper that made it all legal, proper, in order.

It is a remarkable document because it is so unremarkable. It's the standard search warrant issued in a case that is anything but standard. Obscure and obtuse, the pawn-ticket phrases are supposed to legalize the three fluid, shocking minutes that would follow. Those three terrifying minutes pretty well tell us where we are now in the country's history, law and feelings about freedom and tyranny. But this terribly ordinary legal document is terrifying in its own way.

This little mass of government-gray prose, with its blanks to be filled in, one realizes with a sinking feeling, refers not to a missing footlocker or a car about to be repossessed, but to "a certain person or property, namely the person of Elian Gonzalez ... a native and citizen of Cuba.''

No need to go into detail, namely that this is the same Elian Gonzalez drawn from the waters five months before off the Florida coast, and that he is now under a court order that, at least for now, prevents the Justice Department from sending him back to Cuba -- as much as it dearly wants to. At least not until said person or property has had his case heard before a proper court.

The magistrate who signed the warrant, Judge Robert L. Dube of Miami, Fla., attests that he has "probable cause to believe that the person or property so described is now concealed on the ... premises'' at 2319 N.W., 2nd St., Miami, Miami-Dade County, Fla.

Concealed? Concealed? A strange way to put it. Was this federal magistrate the only living person within range of a television set, newspaper, radio, Web site or conversation who didn't know exactly where Elian Gonzalez had been for the last five months? This 6-year-old's whereabouts may have been the best known in the Western Hemisphere.

Of course the boy was concealed by the time the INS' helmeted troopers, assault rifles at the ready, broke down the door and pried the boy out of the arms of Donato Dalrymple, the very fisherman who had plucked him from the waters in another time, another America. The fisherman had been able to save the child from the deep, but not from the shallows of the bureaucratic mind.

The attorney general of the United States chose not to seek a court order for this search-and-seizure. Maybe because Janet Reno couldn't be sure she'd get one or, if she did, that it wouldn't be overturned on appeal.

The only court order in effect was the one from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals keeping Elian in the country. But the attorney general had her search warrant for this littlest fugitive, and with it permission "to seize same.'' As if he were any other piece of evidence.

A few calm voices in the furor now raise polite questions. What's this, something good out of Harvard Law School? A professor of constitutional law there, Laurence Tribe, notes that search warrants are generally used to seize things, not people. "To be sure,'' he notes, "our courts have allowed immigration officials to obtain search warrants to search workplaces for illegal aliens. ... But no one suspects that Elian is here illegally.''

The formulaic language of the search warrant, however strange it sounds now, could hold up despite the professor's protestations. But its interchangeable references to one Elian Gonzalez, age 6, as person or property, and its order "to seize same'' only adds to the clanking sound of Janet Reno's law.

All the papers were in order, Americans are assured. Alles in ordnung. The government's psychiatrists are already working with the boy. And a little Potemkin village, complete with classmates and authority figures flown in from Cuba, is being assembled for Elian on the Wye Plantation, that carefully cultivated dreamworld on Maryland's eastern shore. It takes a village, this kind of thing does.

Under the most watchful of eyes, the subject's re-entry is under way. But the undisciplined American mind wanders from the script, and wonders: Are we watching an ordinary child custody case play out, or a scene from "The Truman Show'?

We dismiss that impermissible thought. All is well, all is peace and quiet. Or so we are told. This is our government speaking. Big Sister's words are soothing, even touched with sentimentality and pride. Her explanations are sweeping, all-encompassing, unmarred by reservation, regret or exception. She speaks in boilerplate. Like that search warrant.

It is only those three minutes back in Miami, back in noisy, unruly, demonstrative America, that seem out of place. The Photo still disturbs. But we're told to forget it, blank it out, shove it down the memory hole. It's misleading, an illusion. It can be explained. As in the wording of the search warrant, all is in order.

Only reality seems out of order.

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