There is a sound case to be made for dropping a tactical nuclear weapon on the Cuban section of Miami. The move would be applauded heartily by most Americans. Alas, Operation Good Riddance would require the sort of mature political courage sadly lacking in Washington, D.C., these days. Meanwhile, we can marvel at the shock with which many supposedly well-informed citizens are discovering that no well-dressed federal enforcement officer would dream of going out on assignment without an automatic weapon, full camo, hand grenades, a CS tear gas canister, handgun, knife, goggles and a backup SWAT team.

Last Saturday, Chris Matthews was excitedly telling his MSNBC audience that the famous AP photo of the Elian snatch perhaps proved "the black-helicopter crowd" might be right when they said America was turning into a police state. Welcome to America, Chris. Where have you been for the past 30 years? Don't you know that every day, somewhere here in the Land of the Free, squads of heavily armed men looking exactly like the fellow in the AP picture are bursting through someone's front door, screaming at the terrified occupants to lie facedown on the floor, trashing the furniture, shooting the dog, running amok? It's standard operating procedure in drug busts, INS raids, some IRS operations, joint fed/local cop arrests, etc., etc. Nearly 90 percent of police departments in towns with a population of over 50,000 maintain SWAT teams. Militarizing law enforcement has been an ongoing process over the past 30 years.

In fact, the whole grotesque Elian saga has been notable not least for the searchlight it has cast on the pitiful ignorance of our "opinion formers" about America As It Really Is. Snatching kids? It's epidemic in America these days. Poor people lose their kids all the time, snatched away by social workers, put into foster homes, then, delivered to a middle-class home for adoption.

As a Fresno civil rights attorney, Catherine Campbell puts it, "Across the last generation, sea changes in society, including birth control and abortion, have dramatically reduced the number of 'unwanted' newborns available for adoption. The children of the poor have become hot-ticket items for the childless (or child-wanting) middle class."

In consequence, a huge foster-care lobby has developed, and parents have been losing rights to caretakers on all sorts of grounds cooked up by the caring agencies, from "emotional abuse" to the whole "crack baby" hysteria. If you're a drug-using black single mother, even though your two kids are thriving, heaven help you if you show up in a hospital to give birth to another kid. As Campbell, who's seen many such cases, says, "She'd have all three snatched in a hot second." If Elian was an ordinary kid, the case records of his Miami relatives would have put him on the "A" list for removal as part of the state's normal business.

Since I regard Elian's Miami "family" as a disgusting bunch of child-exploiters, I rejoiced at the removal of Elian. But of course, Reno screwed up royally, after her correct determination on Jan. 5 that Elian's father was close to his son, and should be the sole authority to speak on his behalf in immigration matters. But in the months thereafter, she dithered.

As Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights puts it, "Reno allowed the great uncle to abuse Elian in a number of ways: taking him to Disneyworld five days after his mother's death, allowing him to become the poster child for the Cuban-American National Foundation, allowing him to be interviewed by Diane Sawyer. She never even issued an order to the great uncle that such uncaring conduct had to cease. She could have easily ordered Elian removed from the great uncle on this basis alone."

These sentiments notwithstanding, Ratner thinks the final operation was legitimate. "I think there was a real chance of danger in Miami. Remember, this is a community made up of a number of terrorists whom our government directed and paid for. Anything was possible."

What is it about Cuba that makes people so crazy? Yes, Cuba has political prisoners, no free press, and an aging caudillo who runs the show. No contest on that one, and I won't even bother to enumerate all the pluses about Cuba, such as kids not starving, wearing shoes, drinking clean water, etc., etc. It's simply that on any scale of Latin American repression, Cuba, across the past 40 years, has been a non-starter. In Guatemala, the generals reportedly instructed by the Central Intelligence Agency killed around 200,000. In Colombia, not so long ago, a U.S.-trained military officer actually massacred a bunch of villagers with a chain saw. Cut them in half. Against such a standard, Castro's crowd are pikers in the arts of oppression.

Is it just that Fidel has lasted so long, despite all the efforts to kill him? Is that why they hate him so? Is it that even now he's having the last laugh, though I'm sure that the CIA or the Cuban American Foundation (they're virtually co-terminous) are offering Elian's dad millions to stay in the United States. Obviously, the decision of the Court of Appeals was designed to allow that negotiation to take place.

By and large, Cuba has been a force for good in the world since the revolution, despite the lamentable political features noted above. In the United States, what would become of Elian? Maybe the same as happens to many of the adopted kids when they reach adolescence, and as Catherine Campbell puts it, "The wounds of their experience begin to manifest in rebelliousness, drug use and minor criminality." He'll probably be better off in Cuba, assuming he ever gets back. Anyway, by the time he turns 21, they'll probably be running a daily ferry between Miami and Havana.

To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.