Is Miami Another Waco?

The somewhat apt comparison is misleading in a broader sense

By David B. Kopel, Independence Institute, and Paul H. Blackman, NRA

4/26/00 1:15 p.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on the Elian Gonzalez kidnapping.

On Holy Saturday, heavily-armed Federal agents broke into a house, filled with persons suspected of no "crime" other than harboring a six-year-old refugee whom the government wrongly called an "illegal alien." The government invaded even though negotiations were making good progress (according to the mediator picked by Janet Reno), waved automatic weapons at a child, threatened to shoot adults, desecrated religious items, sprayed noxious gas indiscriminately, flouted the rule of law it pretended to uphold, and lied about everything.

Some critics compared the kidnapping to the 1993 attacks on the Branch Davidians.

As in Waco, the people in the household were readily available to authorities, and regularly dealt with them in a peaceful manner. As in Waco, the head of the household showed a willingness to negotiate any problems. David Koresh invited the authorities to see his guns as soon as he learned they were the subject of an investigation. Elian's Miami family was negotiating with the authorities as the raid occurred, and had agreed to relinquish custody of Elian — as long as Elian's transfer took place slowly and peacefully, in a neutral setting.

As in Waco, the basis for breaking into the house was a federal warrant, rubberstamped by a magistrate with little concern with whether the affidavit supporting the warrant was accurate or relevant.

Although the Waco comparison is apt in some details, it is misleading in a broader sense, because the comparison implies that events like Waco and the illegal Elian abduction are unusual.

What really distinguishes the Waco and Miami incidents from standard federal, state, and local government practices is the amount of media coverage. "Dynamic entries" (home invasions) by militarized police are common in the current "wars" on "drugs" and "guns." Sometimes, the subjects are bad guys who should be rooted out by the authorities; in other cases, as in the Denver Police Department's slaying of Ismael Mena last September, the invasion is based on flimsy evidence, and the wrong home gets invaded. Even when the right home is targeted, the degree of violence far exceeds what is appropriate to serve a search warrant.

Notably, General Reno's pretext for taking Elian by force with SWAT team waving machine guns was the possibility the people in the home might have exercised their constitutional right to own and carry firearms.

Reno's rationale is a justification for "dynamic entry" invasions of every home in the U.S., since about half of all households in the U.S. exercise their Second Amendment rights, and the government has no way of knowing exactly which households. Indeed, SWAT team invasions have become an ordinary method of serving search warrants under Reno's tenure, intensifying a trend initiated by the Reagan/Bush "war on drugs." In previous generations, federal law enforcement managed to serve search warrants through more peaceful methods, even though household gun ownership was common then, too.

As many advocates of shipping Elian back to Cuba have pointed out, Cuba is different from America, in that Cuba has much stricter gun control. The Batista regime had imposed gun registration, and then Castro used the registration records to confiscate guns from average Cubans. Once the guns were collected, Castro's pretensions about democracy and civil liberties were cast aside. As in Hitler's Germany, some people in Castro's Cuba are still allowed to possess guns, if they are deemed politically reliable.

For those Americans who believe that a constitutional republic is a better form of government than a communist dictatorship (free health care notwithstanding), the focus of Congressional hearings needs to go far beyond a particular instance of a violent home invasion and its bodyguard of lies. The real question is whether the Democrats and, especially, the Republicans now calling for an investigation, are going to be concerned just about the case of Elian Gonzales and his relatives — or whether they will tackle the bigger job of reversing militarization of American law enforcement, even in cases where the media are not present to record the inevitable atrocities.

The authors of this column are speaking for themselves, and not necessarily for the organizations they work for. Kopel and Blackman are co-authors of No More Wacos: What's Wrong with Federal Law Enforcement, and How to Fix It, which was given the 1997 Thomas S. Szasz Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Cause of Civil Liberties, presented by the Center for Independent Thought.

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