The ATF can't seem to catch a break ... even when it comes to naming a headquarters building.
The much maligned (by gun nuts) Justice Department agency has plans to formally attach the name of its most illustrious alumnus -- Elliot Ness of "Untouchables" fame -- to its relatively new, architecturally interesting nerve center here but has run into protest from a couple of politicians from Chicago.
For those of you too young to be familiar with the Ness story, that's where Prohibition-era gangsters held sway under the beady eyes of the most infamous of American crime lords, Alfonse Capone, until Ness and his boys helped bring him to the bar of justice on income tax charges. There have been arguments ever since over the role Ness and his men, portrayed in a bestselling book, popular TV series and motion picture, actually played in the entire affair.
But two things seem abundantly clear. Without the backing of Chicago and Illinois politicians, (where governors to this day seem to have trouble staying out of jail) Capone and his counterparts during the years of vicious squabbling over illegal liquor turf couldn't have thrived. Second, there seems to be about as much evidence that Ness did have a significant part in bringing down Scarface Al as there is that he didn't.
Actually, Ness went on to a distinguished law enforcement career proving he was more than just a figment of Hollywood's imagination. And is it Ness's fault that some author attached the aura of incorruptibility to his name in reviewing a period when almost all the other characters in this bloody Shakespearian drama were just the opposite, including those who held office at the same level of those of the protesters, two aldermen?
Those who will make the ultimate decision about whether to honor Ness and his intrepid band with a nod to their prowess, real or imagined, should consider that to do otherwise would be to acknowledge that the only winner in this latest revision of history was Capone, who in the long run and with the aid of syphilis beat the system and died in luxury in Florida. Do we really want to enshrine the designer of such legendary events of the St. Valentine's Day massacre by letting him win in the last analysis?
Besides there is considerable precedent when it comes to attaching dubious distinction in these public naming exercises. Take the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover building for instance. While Hoover was the iconic director of the national police force, his publicized personal achievements were often embellished.
In fact it is not incorrect to say that the scourge of bank robbers and communists and a whole lot of others who disagreed with him had feet of clay all the way up to his waist. Ask anyone who served in Congress and lived in mortal fear of him while he held forth. Remember those secret files and dossiers he allegedly kept on half of Washington? Just because they were never found doesn't mean they didn't exist.
It is also accurate to say that ATF agents, including many of the old ones from the days when the agency was in the Treasury Department and went belly to belly with truly bad guys, have spilled as much of their own blood in defense of the law as any federal enforcement group. In the process these are guys who have endured less recognition and more malignant attacks than any similar force in U.S. history. In the interest of full disclosure I will say that my son was one of those and never a day went by when I wasn't concerned about his welfare.
So whether Elliot Ness totally deserves the accolade proposed begs the question as to who cares. He was not just made up of whole cloth as my grandmother used to say, but a real live person who obviously did a job tainted only slightly by myth as is often the case in the retelling of events. So back off Chicago unless you feel comfortable with leading a cheer for the bad guys.
This is an agency that needs a day in the sun, an escape from the hovering menace of gun slinging lobbyists and politicians whose predecessors allowed the Capones of the world to operate with Tommy Gun efficiency. Everybody needs a hero.
(Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.)