By Kenneth W. Goodman*.
April 5, 2000

Were King Solomon still hearing cases, he'd be a fool to set up shop in Miami or Havana. Mediating in the awful case of Elian Gonzalez, both sides would call his bluff, and they'd cut that poor boy in two.

Calling Solomon's bluff -- it's a sign that vehemence, hubris and passion are voting the proxies of reason, compassion and ethics. This sort of thing happens a lot in Miami; when it does, we sometimes call it a "Miami moment." It also happens a lot in Havana, where there is no name for it.

Most ordinary folk outside of Miami-Dade County think Elian should not remain in the United States separated from his father. They're right: He belongs with his father (as he has from the beginning of an overlong series of missed opportunities to reunite them without vulgar spectacle). But look at these other recent Miami moments to get a better sense of the dangers of political correctness on an unhappy regimen of social steroids, political Viagra and moral Prozac:

A federal district judge rules against a former member of the county's film board who sued after she was dismissed for publicly criticizing county policies that prevent the showing of Cuban films on county property or using any county support. The judge said the county did not violate her free-speech rights.

A group of mayors and other officials imply at a news conference that they would prevent local police from maintaining order if disturbances erupt if federal authorities try to repatriate Elian.

Opponents of the boy's return plan for a "human chain" that presumably would attempt to block authorities--and his father?--were they to attempt to collect him.

Of course, there is a sense in which our Miami moments are just reflections of people in a free society trying to sort out their positions on a difficult issue. But what is different in Elian's case and, for that matter, in most things having to do with Cuba, is how presumably reasonable people adopt such goofy positions.

And it gets worse when print and broadcast journalists manage to turn a 6-year-old into a waving, posing, photo-op-loving poster boy to illustrate the terrible things grown-ups do when they get angry with each other. Diane Sawyer's banal interview on ABC's "Good Morning America" was a stomach-turner precisely because the boy was neither a bona fide source nor a credible celebrity. As if anything he had to say had real journalistic value independent of his ongoing noodling by partisans . . .

The story that is overlooked in all of this lies at the intersection of ethics and public policy. It is this: How do we make the right decision in cases shaped by social conflict and political fury? As often as not, the answer is not difficult at all. There is frequently no "ethical dilemma" (as the common parlance has it) to gratify the hand-wringers.

Sometimes, all that's needed is a little moral mettle. We often mask our lack of resolve by trying to cast the decision as more difficult than it really is.

In Elian's case, the only apparent argument for keeping him in the United States is that Fidel is a bad guy and Cuba is a poor and miserable place. As arguments go, that is pretty thin beer, especially if it is to be weighed against the value of intact families and the rights of parents to raise their children. Moreover, if rescue from life in a totalitarian society were adequate warrant for keeping children from going home, we should expect Elian's minders and their allies to welcome a whole lot of kids from China, North Korea or what-have-you. (Morality also requires consistency.)

It would have been best if the child had been repatriated as soon as possible after he arrived. It would have been the right thing to do, in part because he belongs with his father and in part because it would have shortened the emotional roller-coaster ride he has endured. Now, though, once we are clearer about the right thing to do, our duty is to do it as expeditiously as possible.

U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, a Miamian, is familiar with Miami moments. Fortunately, her decision to reunite boy with father is the correct one. That it might be difficult to carry out, that it will engender conflict, that it will be controversial -- all that is largely beside the moral point. If it is a tough call, it is because of these consequences, not because of any deep ethical complexity.

Miami has been through the wringer of late. Government corruption, crime and financial shenanigans have taken their toll on an extraordinary community. But authorities and others have taken solid steps to reduce wrongdoing, crime is down and the books are in the best shape in years. Yet an uncalculated consequence of the Elian case emerges as the mother of all Miami moments: the spectacle of a community held in thrall by a minority whose hatred of Fidel Castro outstrips their love of freedom and justice.

The novelist Saul Bellow, writing a quarter-century ago in "To Jerusalem and Back," likened Israel to a "moral resort area" at which those who know no better get to heap scorn on those who are fighting for their lives. Miami has become America's moral resort area. It is not, of course, that Miamians are fighting for their lives, as much as struggling to find their civic souls.

Absent a Solomon to make everyone happy, we have recourse to the following insight: In fraught cases, it is not enough to be vehement and passionate. To prevail, you must also be right.


Kenneth W. Goodman is director for the forum for bioethics and philosophy at the University of Miami.