Reading Elian

The camera doesn't lie. But it will confess to just about anything.

On the morning of April 22, Attorney General Janet Reno and other Justice Department officials woke to a very big problem: a series of seven pictures, snapped by Associated Press photographer Alan Diaz, of federal agents seizing the country’s most celebrated 6-year- old, Elian Gonzalez. Television and the Internet displayed images of a terrified child confronted by a heavily armed, helmeted, goggled, body-armored commando whose weapon was clearly pointed in the boy’s direction.

Behind this figure was a second commando, implying visually that a significant armed force had entered the home. (According to the home’s residents, this second raider is aiming his weapon at a group of persons that includes a 5-year-old boy.) In two of the AP photos, the armed figure in the foreground is reaching for Elian as the boy recoils in horror. If that didn’t look very good Saturday morning, it looked no better by Easter Sunday, when one or the other of the "reaching" images was on the world’s front pages.

A plain reading of these images is that they reveal an extraordinary exertion of armed federal force in an otherwise peaceful domestic setting in which no one is offering resistance. Chris Matthews, the newspaper columnist and host of CNBC’s political talk show, Hardball, suggested in an interview that the images lent credibility to those "black helicopter" conspiracists who are always warning of an imminent military crackdown. Early polls taken that weekend indicated that a plurality of Americans were troubled by the raid’s brutality, as implied by the AP stills (and as fully illustrated by video footage taken outside the Miami site of the invasion).

Many people, in other words, understood the images as illustrating a disturbing level of federal force. Department of Justice officials immediately embarked on a remarkable campaign intended to change the meaning of those pictures. Rather than having the images perceived in political terms, a succession of federal spokespersons–foremost among them Reno herself–worked assiduously to turn the pictures into moral images. That is, they sought to have the photos illustrate not an invasion, but a rescue; not an attack on the Miami family with whom Gonzalez was living, but an effort to reunite the boy with his Cuban father; not brute federal force at all, but federal compassion.

How can anyone change the meaning of a picture? The camera may not lie, but it will confess to just about anything. That is, the meaning of photographic images is remarkably elastic. Changing–even reversing–their apparent meaning by recontextualizing them has become a familiar process. It happens repeatedly in court; the Rodney King tape, in which a man being beaten by police was redefined as cops defending themselves from attack, is the most publicized such example. It happens often in news footage; "packed train" images from Kosovo last year were presented as pictures of genocide rather than of brutal expulsion. Indeed, some of the best-known pictures ever taken have been quietly recategorized as doubts about their content have grown: A world-famous Robert Capa image from the Spanish Civil War, known for decades as "Moment of Death," is now called simply "Man Falling." For all their apparent concreteness, photographs have a remarkable capacity to change before our eyes.

Janet Reno and her allies used a variety of approaches in their attempt to change the meaning of the raid imagery and mitigate its impact. In fact, they may have broken new strategic ground in this field. Here’s a quick rundown of their major efforts.

"Imminent Danger"

The administration repeatedly justified the armed seizure of the boy on the grounds that he was in grave danger. Indeed, if one believed the government’s claims, not a moment could be spared. Thus, the armed commando seen reaching for Elian was engaged in a courageous rescue of the boy from harm.

Was there evidence for this dramatic claim of danger? That depends on what the meaning of "evidence" is. What the government had was a letter to the Immigration and Naturalization Service written on April 18 by a New York pediatrician named Irwin Redlener. Dr. Redlener had watched a homemade video of Elian released by the Miami family earlier that week, and had concluded that the boy was "in a state of imminent danger to his physical and emotional well-being in a home that I consider to be psychologically abusive."

Redlener had never visited the home, had never spoken to the boy, and knew nothing firsthand of Elian’s physical or emotional well being. It is unlikely that any pediatrician who habitually relied on videotape alone for the purposes of diagnosis would be able to maintain his license to practice. In fact, doctors who had spent time with the boy in Miami had come to quite different conclusions; that the boy would suffer psychologically if he were returned to Cuba. But Redlener had one credential that the Miami doctors lacked: He had served on Hillary Clinton’s task force during her ill-fated efforts to reform the nation’s health care system. Noting the connection, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, an Arizona-based professional group, termed Redlener an "administration operative." (Another government doctor was later to suggest that the Miami relatives should receive counseling.)

Perhaps the government’s use of Redlener’s "diagnosis" should be understood as part of Elian Gonzalez’s transition back to a Cuban environment (if that is what ultimately occurs); the perversion of therapeutics for political ends is, after all, a totalitarian tradition. In any event, there has been no further information about the supposed abuse of Elian by his Miami family since the raid, with a single bizarre exception. That was an early report that the boy might have developed a crush on his cousin Marisleysis, a story briefly floated as apparent evidence that the Miami environment was unhealthy. Mercifully, the government soon abandoned the absurd implication.

"The Gun Was Pointed to the Side"

It is arguable that the only time that Elian Gonzalez was ever in demonstrable danger while in the home of his Miami relatives was when that home was invaded by armed Border Control commandos. That is the source of the inherent drama in the famous pictures showing an MP-5 machine gun pointed toward him. Among Janet Reno’s first comments in the wake of the raid was a denial of endangerment.

Reno insisted that the AP photos show that "the gun was pointed to the side," away from the boy, and that the commando’s "finger was not on the trigger." But the terror-stricken child seems not to be aware of these details, and in fact they are entirely beside the point. In concentrating on trigger fingers, Reno is changing the focus of the images. In other words, she is engaging in misdirection.

An argument about the location of the trigger finger might be appropriate if the INS were being charged with intending to shoot the boy. But assassination is not the issue: extreme and reckless federal measures are.

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