Woman of Steel Stood Up for the Law

Lars Erik Nelson
From: News and Views | Beyond the City |
Sunday, April 23, 2000

Attorney General Janet Reno stood backstage at one of those Washington roast-and-spoof dinners last month, about to go onstage to sing a song, "Thank heaven for grownup girls." She was trembling slightly from Parkinson's disease, and the tremors showed through her costume. It was a Superman suit.

But for raw courage Superman doesn't hold a candle to Janet Reno. Nothing can hurt Superman; Reno has been through the cruelest emotional torment and she did her job anyway. Just seven years ago, brand-new to her job, she was assured by federal agents that she could order them to end the siege of the Branch Davidian religious compound outside Waco, Tex. Don't worry, the experts told her. David Koresh and his followers won't commit suicide. Don't worry, it's safe to use CS gas. Don't worry, we know what we're doing.

She trusted their advice. In the fiasco that followed, 81 people died, 24 of them the children Reno was trying to rescue. Reno took the blame although she didn't deserve it and those 81 deaths remained on her conscience.

Two years later, on the anniversary of Waco, two fanatics blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Reno's 1993 decision to order federal agents to attack Waco had come back to haunt her with more dead innocents.

Then, at 4 a.m. yesterday, federal experts assured her they could make their way through a Miami mob, snatch Elian Gonzalez from his relatives and return him to his father.

It was like one of those bad dreams that come back again and again. Reno had done everything possible to avoid such a confrontation. She had even gone down to Miami to negotiate herself and then been cruelly mocked for it. Elian called her "that old woman." Demonstrators in Miami carried placards showing her wearing a devil's horns. Even seemingly responsible newspapers taunted her mercilessly for failing to use force.

Seven years after Waco, Reno knew the risks, knew the nightmare consequences of another failure, knew the burden of thinking yourself to be responsible for the deaths of innocents, knew the agony of the Miami community where she had lived and worked for most of her life. But she had taken an oath to enforce the law. At 4 a.m., she said, "Go."

President Clinton, who let her shoulder the blame after Waco, allowed her to take the credit for the success this time. "She made the decision, she managed this, but I support what she did," he said. Early on in this endless siege, it was possible to say that the supreme goal in this confrontation was Elian's well-being.

But by repeatedly thumbing their noses at the law, Elian's Miami relatives undercut that argument. The supreme goal more important than the happiness of a 6-year-old became the integrity of U.S. law, and Reno upheld the law.

Miami's Cuban community seemed utterly stunned. For the past 40 years they have been a special privileged class in America. Any Cuban who shows up on our shores receives political asylum, even though those from other countries with far stronger claims are turned away. The Miami Cubans have been able to dictate U.S. policy toward their former homeland. They thought, given their political clout with both the Democratic and Republican parties, that they could defy the U.S. government and nothing would happen to them. They reveled in their defiance of the government that had taken them in.

'Every time we thought we had achieved what they wanted, it wasn't enough," Reno said yesterday. "Every step of the way, the Miami relatives kept moving the goal post and raising more hurdles."

Reno taught the country a lesson in political courage yesterday. Of all the officials of the government, she personally would suffer most from another failure. It didn't stop her from doing what she knew was right. There are lots of lessons to be learned from this confrontation. Among them is this: Don't tug on Superman's cape.