Isn’t a Commando Raid ‘Psychologically Abusive’?

The Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2000

By Sally Satel

In Saturday’s predawn hours, federal agents seized a screaming and terrified Elian Gonzalez. “This may seem very scary,” a psychologist told Elian in Spanish on the plane to Washington, “but soon it will be better.” Surely, being taken by commandos with assault rifles is scary. It might even be “psychologically abusive.”

Ironically, that very phrase — psychologically abusive — was first uttered by pediatrician Irwin Redlener to describe the conditions under which Elian was living in the home of his Miami relatives. As an adviser to Attorney General Janet Reno, Dr. Redlener may have even prompted the attorney general — the woman who invaded Waco in part because of child-abuse allegations — to mount the raid in the first place.

Yet how were medical experts to know what is best for Elian? There is no way for a doctor to offer an assessment of a patient’s mental health without spending time with him, and Dr. Redlener never met Elian. More important, it is unlikely that any two doctors evaluating Elian would come up with one opinion as to the future of his psychological health.

Dr. Redlener, president of the Children’s Hospital at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center, is a well-known advocate of children’s health. An adviser to the Immigration and Naturalization Service on the Gonzalez case, he became alarmed by a nationally televised video made by Elian’s relatives, in which Elian told his father he doesn’t want to go back to Cuba.

Though Dr. Redlener had never interviewed Elian, he pronounced that the boy looked stiff and coached, signs that he was being “extremely manipulated. . . . The videotape looks exactly what we might see in a hostage situation.” Many viewers indeed found the tape unsettling — but child abuse? Still, on national television, Dr. Redlener assured viewers that he knows child abuse when he sees it, having treated abused children for 30 years. One can only wonder how he would “diagnose” the boy being captured Saturday morning as he reportedly yelled, “Help me! Help me! Don’t take me away!”

Dr. Redlener was hardly the only doctor speaking up in the weeks prior to Saturday’s raid. Many said that the emotionally charged environment in Little Havana was destructive to Elian. One called the situation “abnormal” for a six-year-old. And indeed it was.

But was this so terrible? Elian must have gotten the idea that his fate was important and that many people loved him dearly. Can that be a bad thing? He seems to be an especially strong child. He survived in seas where adults around him perished. He engaged readily with a distant family who rushed to comfort him. To me, these seem like good prognostic factors for continued adaptation. In other words, maybe he could have handled the turmoil. And in any case, Saturday’s raid gives the lie to Ms. Reno’s claim that she wished to avoid traumatizing the boy.

The important point here is that it is impossible to predict Elian’s future mental health. What Dr. Redlener did, wrapped in the mantle of a child-health expert, was plain reckless; he is beginning to look like the William Ginsburg of the Gonzalez case. It’s just as easy, and just as facile, for me to say that the close attachment Elian formed to his cousin Marisleysis, who is about the same age as his mother, was a healthy shield against his lapsing into debilitating mourning. Maybe he’ll fall apart now that he’s been taken away from her, but I can’t know.

Moreover, whose expert opinion do we believe? Psychologists who have actually examined Elian say that he is doing quite well. By simple virtue of having seen the boy, they have more hard information than Dr. Redlener and other mental-health experts. One psychologist who examined Elian even predicted the boy would develop posttraumatic stress disorder were he returned to his father.

Dr. Redlener said last week on CNN that Elian was “extremely manipulated” by the Miami relatives. And although the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered that the boy remain in the U.S. until his legal case is resolved, the Clinton administration has made clear that its goal is to return him to communist Cuba. Will Dr. Redlener have a word to say about the “re-education” that awaits Elian there if the administration succeeds?