AND SO IT HAS come to this, come to feel like Little Rock in 1957. Come to feel, in other words, like a standoff between the federal government and a small group of citizens who choose to defy its will. This is where we stand in the case of Elian Gonzalez.
Two things have come to seem ever more certain in recent days. The first is that the government will soon move to return this 6-year-old boy to his father in Cuba. The second is that Cuban-American protesters in Miami will physically resist. Indeed, earlier this week the group that formed a human chain around the home of the boy's South Florida family vowed civil disobedience should the government come for the child.
It's hard to imagine a more useless strategy. But how to make them see? I'm not sure it's possible. It's like the last frozen instant before the car crash. You yell a warning, but even as the words leave your lips, you know the collision is all but inevitable.
Similarly, there's little realistic expectation that Elian's more vociferous supporters will swerve from this pile-up. And there's no way the government can.
If you don't understand that, consider the story of Little Rock where, in 1957, Gov. Orval Faubus defied a Supreme Court decision ordering the integration of Central High. President Eisenhower, who didn't really care a whit about integration, nevertheless ordered the Army into the Arkansas capital to back up the high court's ruling with bayonets.
The point being that at the place where nitty meets gritty, the federal government will not -- cannot -- allow its sovereign authority to be openly defied. For the government to allow that, for it to suffer such a public loss of face, would be the first brick in the road to anarchy.
It's a truth Elian's supporters would do well to heed. Granted, they never had more than the most outside chance of winning the right for the boy to stay in this country. But the long shot becomes longer still when they seek to bully the government -- by threat of physical resistance or reprisal -- into doing what they want.
Moving government requires not just a credible threat but also tact and the skillful manipulation of public opinion; you cannot push Washington to the wall and you should leave it a face-saving exit. Instead, some in Cuban Miami just want to put a gun to its head.
I'm reminded that Americas Watch, the human rights watchdog group, has criticized Cubans in America as intolerant of dissent for the tendency of some in that community to use violence and coercion as means of cowing disagreement.
I'm reminded of all the times I've heard Cuban-Americans say they can't voice disagreement with hard-liners in their community for fear of repercussions. And I'm reminded, too, of this Cuban guy who called me once to say that his people don't need the approval of so-called outsiders, nor even care what they think.
Now the bill for that ham-handed attitude comes due. Now irresistible force meets immovable object and, while it's probably never smart to wager too much on the integrity of government, I doubt Washington will suffer this circus much longer.
This isn't, I hasten to add, a cause for celebration. Remember, the central character in this drama is a 6-year-old boy who has already been traumatized enough for a lifetime.
I mean, whose heart didn't break when they heard what he told the TV journalist a few days ago? How he insisted that his mother, who drowned trying to bring him here, isn't really dead. No, he said with a child's boundless capacity for denial and faith, she has merely lost her memory and doesn't know where he is. Traumatized enough. Now some would traumatize him some more, forcing federal officials to seize him bodily through a gauntlet of human bodies. Whose needs are they really protecting? What cause are they really fighting?
And is there still time to turn away, before the collision comes?
Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling toll-free at 1-800-457-3881.
Copyright 2000 Contra Costa Times