Brunswick, GA -- The federal agent captured on film with goggles and gun as he ordered Donato Dalrymple to relinquish Elian Gonzalez from a Little Havana closet . . . got a spirited, sustained applause for it on Tuesday. . . . The 100-plus agents of Operation Reunion took the stage at a federal law enforcers training academy here for a handshake and letter of commendation from U.S. Immigration Commissioner Doris Meissner. . . . "It was my firm conviction, then and now, that we did the right thing on April 22, and we are doing it again today," Meissner said in a prepared statement.

-- Miami Herald, Aug. 16

WHY IS THIS SO GALLING? Why -- even if one is in that muddled majority of Americans who agree little Elian had to be rescued at gunpoint from the home of his uncle -- should one be appalled at this? After all, if you believe the commando raid was a necessity, shouldn't its successful completion be celebrated?

Actually, no. The deep corruption of the Clinton administration's entire approach to the Elian case was its insistence that it was doing not just what it felt it must, but something praiseworthy. In its confusion of doing what one must with doing the right thing, the INS's celebration last week, which was endorsed by Attorney General Janet Reno, is thus a grotesquely fitting postscript to the episode.

To get a sense of why, you can do worse than to look to those masters of moral complexity, the Greek tragedians. Consider Aeschylus' Agamemnon, which deals not just with how to choose in hard cases but, more important, with how to behave when faced with lousy choices.

The great general Agamemnon, you will recall, had embarked on a mission from the gods. No less a deity than Zeus himself commanded that Agamemnon lead a Greek armada against Troy to punish the city for stealing Helen, Athens' queen. But with his ships stranded in seas becalmed by the goddess Artemis, the general is presented by his soothsayer with an awful choice between two evils: Either he must sacrifice his innocent daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis, or the soldiers under his command (and his daughter, too, for that matter) will die of thirst and starvation, a fate that also means the failure of his Zeus-ordered mission.

At first he seems to recognize the gravity of his dilemma: "A heavy doom is disobedience [to Zeus], but heavy, too, if I shall rend my own child, the adornment of my house, polluting a father's hands with streams of slaughtered maiden's blood close by the altar. Which of these is without evils?" No Hamlet he, Agamemnon chooses to kill Iphigenia. But from the moment he makes his decision, he conveniently forgets that he is acting under duress. Indeed, Agamemnon persuades himself that sacrificing his daughter is the right thing to do.

"Law is law!" he declares. "Let all go well." And so, convinced of the rightness of his action, Agamemnon becomes downright enthusiastic about doing in poor Iphigenia. "Gag her hard," he tells his henchmen. They tie her up (with the saffron robes that would have been her wedding gown) and throw her on the altar "like a goat."

The Chorus -- that great organ voice of morality -- is none too pleased.

But why? Didn't Agamemnon do what he had to do? Maybe so, but as Martha Nussbaum argues in her book The Fragility of Goodness, the Chorus is unhappy with the attitude Agamemnon has about the awful thing he has to do, and the fact that afterwards he never expresses regret. "When he had slipped his neck through the yoke-strap of necessity," the Chorus complains, "his thoughts blew in an impious, unholy direction." As Nussbaum explains, the Chorus expects an ethical person to "exhibit the feelings appropriate to a person of good character caught in such a situation. He will not regard the fact of decision as licensing feelings of self-congratulation, much less feelings of unqualified enthusiasm for the act chosen."

Self-congratulation, though, is the lodestar of the Clinton administration, and the INS's Doris Meissner its faithful servant. So we should probably not be surprised that, having first decided they had no choice but to grab Elian at gunpoint, they should now celebrate and congratulate themselves for having done the right thing. Never mind that in doing so they ignore the ugliness of the terrible scene they produced. They ignore the grim tableau of masked, machine-gun-toting commandos crashing into the suburban bungalow of American citizens (and seem to think that, as long as the gun didn't go off, it's perfectly okay to point an MP-5 at a six-year-old's chest). And they are apparently untroubled at having stomped and maced a television cameraman to keep him from capturing embarrassing footage of the raid. "Law is law!" the administration proclaims with self-righteous bluster.

Indeed, if the administration thinks it appropriate to celebrate its triumph over Elian's Miami relatives and the sputtering crowds of Little Havana, one has to wonder whether they ever understood themselves to be facing a moral dilemma in the first place. If -- as it appears -- they didn't appreciate that an awful choice had been thrust on them by outrageous fortune, how can they possibly imagine that they have done the right thing? Only because they share in the debased morality of the self-infatuated: They believe whatever they do is right because they do it.

What is the appropriate response from a public that witnesses its government's odious self-congratulation? There is nothing for us to do but, like the Chorus, avert our eyes from the shameful scene and mourn: "Justice turns the balance scales, sees that we suffer, and we suffer and we learn."

Eric Felten is a senior editor at Reader's Digest.

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