From Press Row: Elian, Khalid Khannouchi and media frenzy

While casually observing the ubiquitous fiasco surrounding the little Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez, much of my daily amusement has come from watching every sort of person chuck his pennies around. Throughout, I’ve largely exercised my

While casually observing the ubiquitous fiasco surrounding the little Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez, much of my daily amusement has come from watching every sort of person chuck his pennies around. Throughout, I’ve largely exercised my God-given right to wait and see.

Now my two cents are ready.

There has been an overwhelming sense among those who advocate Elian’s staying in America that this could be any little boy who was partially orphaned while trying to migrate from an oppressive country. People have argued that he is better off in the United States, better off without his father.

But the truth of the matter is that if his father had drowned and his mother had been in Cuba, Elian would have gone back within a week of being rescued, Fidel Castro or no Fidel Castro.

What’s more, had Elian been a refugee from Haiti – an island nation possibly even more oppressive than Cuba – the fisherman who found him probably would have pushed his little inner tube out to sea.

All this is by way of saying that Elian belongs with Juan Gonzalez, his father, and always has, whether or not that father is a fan of Castro. The protracted dispute, taken advantage of by the Cuban-Americans in Miami as a political megaphone of global proportions, is a travesty and a crime against the well-being of the little boy himself.

The use of force in the middle of the night Saturday, therefore, was unfortunately necessary.

It is my sincere hope that Elian Gonzalez gets the help he will need to emotionally deal with the frightening things that have happened to him since he lift Cuba, not the least of which is his mother’ drowning.

Furthermore, in the aftermath of the capture of the boy from his Miami relatives, I have been relieved not to see Elian all over television.

The Clinton Administration, and Janet Reno in particular, has done its duty by Elian Gonzalez at last, and the rest is not my business. And – unless you are Elian or Juan Gonzalez – it’s not yours either.

Now contrast the Elian saga with that of the world-record holder in the marathon, and you will see the power of a media frenzy.

Khalid Khannouchi, a native of Morocco, first arrived in the United States in 1993 to compete in the World University Games in New York. In 1996, he married Sandra Natal, a naturalized American citizen from the Dominican Republic.

He began the process of becoming a naturalized American citizen himself in 1997, interviewing with an agent of the Immigration Naturalization Service.

Before long, Khannouchi’s cause hit a snag as his caseworker was charged with bribery in cases unrelated to the marathoner’s.

As it appeared clear to Khannouchi that his case would not make it through the INS red tape in time for him to compete as an American in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials and then hopefully in the Olympics in Sydney, he and his supporters began a grassroots letter-writing campaign. Their aim was to speed up the naturalization process from the average of three and a half years to about two years.

It seems like a small request, considering the prestige of the applicant, Khannouchi.

Along the way, the Moroccan – nicknamed “the Velvet Hammer” for his seemingly effortless but punishing acceleration in the second half of long races — continued competing in events, mostly in the United States, and winning many of them. Some of his most impressive victories have come here in the City of Brotherly Love, as he won the 1999 Philadelphia Distance Run going away.

Last fall, he ran the Chicago Marathon in a world-record time of just over two hours and five minutes.

Many objectors to Khannouchi’s bid for citizenship say he shouldn’t be allowed to take a spot on the Olympic team that would otherwise go to runners already within the American system.

But this objection doesn’t hold water, since there are three available slots on the U.S. Olympic marathon team, but only one American runner besides Khannouchi (David Morris) who has thus far run a time faster than the Olympic time standard of 2:13.

Khannouchi wouldn’t take a spot away from anyone, just increase the U.S. presence in the event in Sydney.

In a last-ditch effort to qualify Khannouchi for citizenship in time for the U.S. Olympic Trials, to be held in Pittsburgh May 7, U.S. Rep. Sue Kelly sponsored a bill that would grant Khannouchi expedited closure to his case. But Rep. Lamar Smith, Chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Claims, sent Kelly a letter explaining that the situation was almost hopeless.

In short, the fastest marathoner in the world, as much as he wanted to run for America in Sydney in September, was fresh out of time.

Instead of running in the U.S. Trials in May, Khannouchi settled for a third-place finish on a cold day at the London Marathon April 16. The concession of defeat made some headlines for a day or two, and was regular conversation fodder on Sunday morning runs nationwide, but received nowhere near the media attention given to the Elian Gonzalez debacle.

Imagine that Juan Gonzalez had said he wanted to stay in America with his son. How many steps of the INS process do you think would have been expedited then?

The Gonzalezes would have been enjoying their green cards in record time.

It is the power of the media which continues to generate rage over the Elian fiasco worldwide. Conversely, if the media had deigned to make it known to America what an amazing athletic talent was on the cusp of citizenship, Khalid Khannouchi would be thinking Olympic gold for the United States come September.

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