In the last two weeks, Mayor Giuliani has been like a train station in which several lines of argument converge. Although the pre-Easter raid on Elián González took place in Florida, and the nearest community of Cuban-Americans is in New Jersey, the Mayor has been hammering Janet Reno and the I.N.S. for its conduct, to embarrass Mrs. Clinton and to pick up out-of-state money. This prompted State Senator David Paterson to wonder what the Mayor was complaining about, since Mr. Paterson thought the I.N.S.’s behavior resembled the New York Police Department’s. Is Mayor Giuliani a Glock pistol calling a submachine gun black? Should the Miami Cubans come north if they want to see real tough guys?
Begin with the differences between there and here. The headline stories involving New York cops have been either the work of rogue sickos, who were promptly punished (the cops who tortured Abner Louima); or of officers who were somehow provoked by violence: the Amadou Diallo cops were looking for a rapist, Patrick Dorismond was killed in a fight. In Miami, the I.N.S. descended on a home where they had been promised there would be no resistance, and where there was none.
Does the Police Department deliberately break religious images in its raids? Everyone saw the pictures of the post-raid home of Elián’s Miami relatives, with its toppled statues of the Virgin Mary. Unless she was guarding the closet door, why did the I.N.S. waste her? It has all the earmarks of sudden-entry tactics used to disorient dangerous lawbreakers. But Elián’s family was not dangerous. Maybe the police routinely break Santeria statues or Nation of Islam icons, but if they do the press has missed a good story.
Mr. Paterson was hardly alone among black politicians in showing no sympathy for the Miami Cubans. The nasty ethnic sideshow of the Elián affair is that the black political class likes Fidel Castro-which is another way of saying that blacks and Cuban-Americans dislike each other. This has been brewing for a long time. Mr. Castro earned a lot of credit by staying at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem back when he first came to power. White conservatives have sowed a lot of tares by using Cuban-Americans as a stick to beat blacks. “They work hard and do well. Why can’t you get off your welfare ass?” That’s the line. I know, I’ve thought it many a time. Blacks believe they have the monopoly on let-my-people-go street theater; they don’t appreciate Cuban-Americans poaching on the franchise. There is also policy envy: Cuban-Americans have a foreign policy; what do blacks have-support for Robert Mugabe, or the Sudan? What kind of a “black” foreign policy could there be? Whites don’t have a pro-European foreign policy. Still, the disparity rankles.
But, of course, there are also similarities between there and here-between how the I.N.S. behaved and how the Police Department, and increasingly all law enforcement, behaves. Policing seems to be getting more paramilitary-or so the regalia of helmets and body armor suggests. A lot of this is necessary. Many criminals are businessmen. Drug dealers must defend their market share: chiefly against each other, but also against the police when necessary, and it is in their interest to be well armed. The police have to arm themselves in response, out of simple self-defense.
This begs an important question. If we were not criminalizing a vile but lucrative market, would we need such an arms race? This raises another question: If we increasingly criminalize guns, as gun-control supporters want us to do, will we be creating another bitterly defended black market? As with drugs, it will attract hordes of gangsters-career outlaws who have taken up the latest opportunity. But also as with drugs, it will involve hordes of more-or-less innocents who threaten no one-normal Americans who wish to enjoy an ancient right, even as others practice a solitary vice. Remember that the shootout at Waco began with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms looking to get an increased appropriation by making a timely gun bust.
Here is a problem more important than Mayor Giuliani slanging Mrs. Clinton, or Senator Paterson taking potshots at Mayor Giuliani. The goal of modern government-not just the Clinton administration-seems to be to produce a passive populace, used to intrusion and habituated to obedience. Voting and litigation are allowed as safety valves, although fewer of us vote (partly because litigation so often nullifies the will of elected representatives). Symbols of autonomy, such as personal firearms, will be removed; they send a bad message, and they do go off in frequently tragic ways. When it is necessary to make a more specific assertion of state power, we send in the centurions. Blacks will exist as a “scheduled caste” (old Indian jargon for untouchables). Their leaders will be allowed certain symbolic leeway, mainly because their past sufferings are useful in making everyone else feel guilty. Black lawbreakers will or won’t be severely dealt with, on a random basis: Arguments over their situation keep everyone else distracted from what is going on.
If this picture is at all true, then the most interesting comments of the last two weeks were not from politicians, but from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who hailed the Miami raid, and particularly the Associated Press photo of the I.N.S. agent pointing his submachine gun at Elián in the closet, as an example of the American rule of law. How right he was. Big-city journalists are doing just fine in our system; we can’t let some raggedy Miami Cubans rewrite the script.
The questions beneath these questions are: Is republicanism being lost? Is it possible? All republics, until 1776, were small: Greek and Italian cities; Geneva. It was the insight of Hamilton, Madison and the other framers that small republics were unstable-bullied by oligarchs and rent by passions. They thought a republican empire would better preserve liberty because of its very extent. Maybe what we are seeing now is the imperial dynamic choking out the republican residue. Will that happen? Would we be happier if it did?
This may seem a long way from senatorial candidates eye-gouging each other, but the big questions never go away. They only slumber.