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Yearning for freedom, only to defy its law

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2000

It was painful Thursday to watch Elian Gonzalez on videotape, over and over. He pointed his finger in the air as he proudly recited his lines about not wanting to go back to Cuba.

The fact his Miami relatives would trot him out and put him on stage in this way, one more time, made their priorities clear: to win at all costs.

If Elian were 18 years old, or even 16, or some age older than 6, then his words might carry more weight. But under which laws on our books, in which American courthouses, do we rely solely upon the coached recitals of 6-year-old children to decide their fates?

How often do you allow your own 6-year-old to make life-changing decisions? How often do you decide what is best for your children on the basis of that day's "I wanna" or "I don't wanna"?

Thursday's deadline for Elian's surrender came and went. The enforcer of the laws of the United States in this case, the U.S. Department of Justice, said the boy was to be produced by 2 p.m. to begin the process of reuniting him with his father.

The answer from Miami was: The hell with your law. This is about Fidel Castro, and that is more important to us than your law; it is more important than the United States itself.

Our cause entitles us to decide which parents can have their own children, and which cannot. It entitles us to enjoy the blessings of liberty in the United States, while rejecting the responsibility of living in it.

Funny how things work out.

An hour after deliberately defying the rule of law, the Miami relatives were bailed out by that same rule of law when the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a temporary restraining order in their favor.

A cheer went up among the crowd gathered in the streets when this latest legal delay was announced. Apparently this concept of the "rule of law" is acceptable as long as the courts decide the right way; if you do not like the result, then the law is to be scorned.

There was a crazy, quasi-religious fervor among the people. People waved Bibles and flags and political signs. "Clinton Corrupt Coward," one sign said, although the precise relevance to Elian's case was not clear. Surely there was no political agenda at work.

A woman had the words "Justice for Elian" painted on her cheek. Presumably, "justice" meant keeping him away from his father. Every now and then someone fainted with tent-revival fervor.

The mayor of the city of Miami, Joe Carollo, and the Miami-Dade mayor, Alex Penelas, stood on either side of the singer Gloria Estefan as she made a speech. Then it was the actor Andy Garcia's turn.

The cable TV narrators breathlessly tracked the celebrities' every move as the scene degenerated deeper and deeper into farce. In the same breath, speakers would vow to fight to the death, then add they were opposed to violence.

Attorney General Janet Reno wisely did not make things worse by sending in the troops the instant the 2 p.m. deadline passed. She said there was a time and a place for these things. Of course, she would have looked pretty bad if she had provoked a confrontation and then the court ruling came out an hour later.

If the 11th Circuit finds some merit to the new argument -- may someone other than the boy's father request asylum? -- then fine. But if not, the time will come in a few days for the boy to go, and Reno will have to strike the balance between spinelessness and brutality. On that day, in that hour, she will have the toughest job in the world.

By demanding a boy be kept from his father, the demonstrators of Miami have lost the battle for public opinion in the United States and around the world. They have achieved exactly the opposite of their desire, which was to enlighten the world to Castro's genuine abuses. They believed that what they saw as a noble end would justify any means in the public's mind. They were wrong.

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