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Reno’s Disgrace

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Everyone-regardless of his views on Juan Miguel Gonzalez’s claim to his son-should be appalled at how Attorney General Janet Reno carried out the removal of Elián Gonzalez from the home of his great-uncle in Miami. The sight of agents of the U.S. government, clad in military-style assault gear, armed with automatic weapons, breaking into a private home in the early morning hours and snatching a boy from an unarmed man should be a wake-up call to anyone who loves liberty. That most people in this country think the government’s conduct was proper only shows how effective the authorities have been in turning a once-rebellious people into sheep. (Who says the public schools aren’t working?)

Reno and the INS acted as though the Miami standoff was a hostage situation in which Elián was in grave and immediate danger. Obviously that was not the case. The Miamians’ appeal to the federal court in Atlanta had sufficiently muddled the matter that Reno had no clear-cut authority to act. She had a search warrant, but as law professor Laurence Tribe points out, that could not authorize seizure of the child: “No judge or neutral magistrate had issued the type of warrant or other authority needed for the executive branch to break into the home to seize the child.” Reno should have waited until the federal court had ruled on her request for an order for Lazaro Gonzalez to produce Elián. Had he then refused, he could have been cited for contempt of court.

That’s the way things are done in a case of this nature in a country that respects the rule of law. It doesn’t send troops smashing into a home before dawn. This is just another disgraceful act by the Clinton administration, which has shown scant regard for the Constitution during its seven years in office. It is telling that the president refuses to submit himself to questioning. Instead, he chants the words, “the rule of law.” Imagine such words coming from that man!

The scarcest commodity throughout this episode has been objectivity. For example, conservative politicians and commentators have decried the raid, the pepper spray, the automatic weapons. You’d think it was the first time such an event has happened in the United States. The goons of the Drug Enforcement Agency and local police use the same tactics against suspected drug sellers and users all the time. More than infrequently they wreck the homes of people who don’t even have drugs. People have been killed in assaults on the wrong house. Have you ever heard a conservative complain even mildly?

Similarly, when was the last time a conservative protested an INS raid at a home or workplace when the noncitizens were from somewhere other than Cuba? INS routinely swoops down and rounds up “illegal aliens,” sending them back to their countries of origin, even if they face repression and socialism.

Also hypocritical is New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s protest against Reno’s tactics. This is the man who, as a U.S. attorney, had federal marshals raid Wall Street investment houses and publicly march handcuffed stock traders off to the hoosegow because they were upsetting old, established apple carts. It was Giuliani who imprisoned Michael Milken, a man who had violated no one’s rights and who is as much responsible for the economic boom as any single man can be.

Conservatives’ sudden sensitivity to police-state tactics comes a little late-as does their disgust with the American people’s obeisance to government power. After all, it was the conservatives, particularly during the war in Vietnam, who bashed any opposition to the federal government as disloyal and suspect. While they would cheer civil disobedience on the part of the Miami Cubans, they had only disdain for people who escaped conscription during that immoral and unconstitutional war. It is revealing that of all the charges made by conservatives against Bill Clinton, among the most serious is that he avoided the draft. For conservatives, it is not just that Clinton is a hypocrite (which he assuredly is), it’s that he did not submit when his government called him to war.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.