The American Spectator

June, 2000

HEADLINE: Good Government Guns
The Elian Gonzalez Rescue: Private owners will be handed semiautomatic Play-Doh.

BYLINE: by James Bovard; James Bovard is the author of Freedom in Chains: The
Rise of the State & the Demise of the Citizen (St. Martin's Press).


What is the difference between a private machine gun and a government machine

Thirty years.

Two days after the April 22 raid in Little Havana, a Justice Department
lawyer implored the Supreme Court to permit judges to add 30 extra years to the
prison sentences of anyone who commits a violent crime with an automatic weapon.
Such weapons are so heinous, the lawyer asserted, that there was no need to have
a jury verdict on whether defendants actually used them; instead, a judge should
have authority to throw people into prison for what's left of their lives based
solely on the allegation that automatic weapons were in the same building as
they were when a crime was committed. (The case involved the excessive sentences
that a vindictive federal judge slapped on Branch Davidian survivors of the
April 19, 1993 fire at Waco.)

But government machine guns are different. As we learned from the Clinton
administration and much of the media, a machine gun in the hands of a federal
agent is now a symbol of benevolence and concern for a child's well-being. The
ensuing battle over the raid has gone to the heart of the administration's
efforts to anesthetize Americans to government.

The INS attack went pretty much as planned--the agents grabbed six-year-old
Elian Gonzalez and left shattered doors, a broken bed, roughed-up Cuban-
Americans, and two NBC cameramen writhing in pain from stomach-kicks or rifle-
butts to the head. The only problem: Associated Press stringer Alan Diaz snapped
his famous photo.

Administration officials scrambled to provide Americans a deeper
understanding of the stunning image. Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder
asserted that the boy "was not taken at the point of a gun." When challenged
about the machine gun, Holder explained: "They were armed agents who went in
there who acted very sensitively." Holder denied that the raid occurred at
night, even though 5:15 a.m. was more than an hour before sunrise. He asserted
that "the agents knocked on the door once, they waited ten seconds, they knocked
on the door a second time, waited 20 seconds, then at that time went into the
house." Film footage clearly shows the agents storming the front door with a
battering ram within a few seconds of entering the yard.

For their part, the agents made no attempt to present the residents with the
dubious warrant they had squeezed out of a low-ranking federal magistrate the
evening before.

Television footage of an INS agent absconding with Elian showed horror on the
boy's face. (One cynic commented that the female agent looked like a vampire
excitedly carrying away her breakfast.) INS chief Doris Meissner assuaged
concerns about the boy's well-being by revealing that Elian was given Play-Doh
on the government plane that took him to Washington. Meissner declared, "The
squeezing of Play-Doh is the best thing that you can do for a child who might be
experiencing stress." But what's the correct dosage of Play-Doh after a child
has faced a 30-round magazine?

In her raid-day press conference, Attorney General Janet Reno denied Diaz's
photo showed anything out of the ordinary. "As I understand it, if you look at
it carefully, it shows that the gun was pointed to the side, and that the finger
was not on the trigger." Admittedly the muzzle of the gun was not inside Elian's
mouth, just pointed toward the man holding the boy. The Hechler and Koch MP-5
submachine gun sprays 800 rounds a minute--and a finger a half inch away from
the trigger means nothing. The agent did not even have both hands on the machine
gun: If the weapon had fired, he would have had no control over who got sprayed.
In a puff interview on NBC's "Today" show two days later, Reno declared: "One of
the things that is so very important is that the force was not used. It was a
show of force that prevented people from getting hurt." Showing enough docility
to be a Washington beat reporter, NBC interviewer Katie Couric made no mention
of the two NBC employees who got whacked by feds during the raid.

Asked about excessive force, White House Spokesman Joe Lockhart emphasized
that the agents "drove up in white mini-vans"--as if vehicle color proved this
was a mission of mercy. Besides, the administration had learned its Waco lesson:
no tanks or Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Lockhart implored the media: " It's
certainly my hope that those who are in the business of describing such things
to the public will use great care and great perspective" in how they presented
Diaz's photo.

President Clinton stepped up to a Rose Garden microphone to announce that "
there was no alternative but to enforce the decision of the INS and the federal
court." Which federal court--the one that denied the administration a requested
court order? Clinton then added, "The most important thing was to treat this in
a lawful manner, according to the established process." Established where? At

Waco? Ruby Ridge? Kosovo?

The media did its part to drown Americans in political unreality. Less than
three hours after the raid, CBS news anchor Dan Rather asserted: "Even if the
photographer was in the house legally...there is the question of the privacy,
beginning with the privacy of the child." Within eight hours of the raid, CNN
host Judy Woodruff characterized the morning's action as "the Elian Gonzalez
handover." James Warren, Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune, fretted
the picture "will ignite all the crazies." MSNBC's Brian Williams warned a few
days after the raid that the government's action could be " stirring up the
right-wing whackos." A laudatory Washington Post article claimed Reno had
personally insured that not all journalists would be beaten during the raid.

Much of the news media--including Time magazine and the New York Times-- gave
far greater play to a Christmas card-like photo of the father-son reunion
snapped by $800-an-hour lawyer Gregory Craig (and distributed by Justice
Department officials) than to the AP action photo. The Times reported that "the
newspaper's top editors believed that the photo of the agent with the assault
rifle needed to be put in context, because it was not clear where the gun was
pointed and whether the agent's finger was on the trigger. The editors decided
to run that photo with an article by one of the newspaper's media critics about
the photos and how they were used." The Times gave the AP photo treatment
usually reserved for doubtful propaganda images from Communist regimes.

Times writer Thomas Friedman, in a column headlined "Reno for President,"
declared that the machine gun photo "warmed my heart" and said it should be put
"up in every visa line in every U.S. consulate around the world, with a caption
that reads: 'America is a country where the rule of law rules. This picture
illustrates what happens to those who defy the rule of law and how far our
government and people will go to preserve it.'" Garry Wills, author of A
Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government, wrote in a Times
op-ed: "The familiar picture of the menacing INS agent flourishing a machine gun
shows us an officer trying to avoid violence, not one inviting it. " Wills
concluded, "The readiness of people to deplore 'jack-booted' tactics reveals the
intransigence that made the rescue necessary." In other words, call us fascists
and we'll give you fascism.

The American Civil Liberties Union was conspicuously silent. In 1995 it had
joined the National Rifle Association and other conservative groups to protest
the militarization of federal law enforcement. But the week after the raid the
ACLU seemed preoccupied championing gay marriage and partial-birth abortion.
According to the Los Angeles Times, there was a hot internal debate at the ACLU
on whether to react; eventually, the organization quietly announced that it was
"troubled" by the incident. Forgotten was the ACLU's defense in the 1980's of
12-year-old Walter Polovchak's right not to be forcibly returned to the Soviet

A striking thing about Clinton's Rose Garden press appearance was the hang-
dog look on his face. He appeared to know full well that the Diaz photo would
undercut his efforts to delegitimize fear of government. For Clinton, government
is "a champion of national purpose"--"the instrument of our national community"
and "a progressive instrument of the common good." In a speech to the Democratic
National Committee on January 21, 1997, he bragged: " We ended the notion that
government is the problem.... Make no mistake, our view prevailed." Now
Americans are less likely to regard government as a hovercraft floating gently
above their lives.

The photo also undercuts Clinton's attempts to persuade Americans that only
government officials should be allowed to possess firearms. Clinton has been
far and away the most anti-gun president in American history. Since 1993, he has
signaled his desire to ban ownership of up to 35 million guns. In 1996, he
championed legislation that created 100,000 gun-ban zones nationwide and he
helped enact a law that retroactively turned a million gun owners into felons.
His FBI created an illegal national registry of all people who bought firearms
after November 1998. His administration explicitly argued before the Supreme
Court that every gun owner must be presumed guilty, the same as drug
dealers--simply because the gun owner should have known that guns are dangerous
items subject to regulation.

In office Clinton has never made a single public remark recognizing that a
citizen may have legitimately used a firearm in self-defense. In Clinton's view,
privately owned six-shooters are a dire threat to public safety, even if kept in
a dresser drawer in the bedroom of a private house--while government machine
guns pose no threat, even if pointed at a cowering child.