Eliot Ness would support Ariel Rios

Nearly 30 years ago, Congress named the building that housed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) the Ariel Rios Memorial Building, honoring the first ATF agent murdered in the line of duty.  When ATF moved its headquarters across town, the name Ariel Rios remained on the building and, in fact, was only removed in 2012 when the building, now the home of the Environmental Protection Agency, was renamed.     

Sadly, the legislation that renamed the building for EPA neglected to move Ariel Rios' name to the ATF’s new headquarters.  A few weeks ago three senators introduced legislation to name the ATF’s new building after Eliot Ness, the Prohibition agent whose career has become mythologized in pop culture.

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Not surprisingly this bill provoked a debate over Ness’ career, since many historians question the veracity of the legend created by Hollywood about his role in bringing the bootlegging gangster Al Capone to justice.  But, the issue here is not whether Eliot Ness should have a building named after him.  It is whether it should be at the expense of Ariel Rios and all that he represents.  Clearly the answer is no and the Ariel Rios designation should be restored to the ATF headquarters.

Rios was a young ATF agent doing what frontline law enforcement officers at ATF and other federal, state and local agencies do every day.  He willingly put his life in harm’s way while confronting evil forces in our society.  While serving on the Vice President’s South Florida Drug Task Force, Agent Rios was murdered by drug traffickers during an undercover operation.  

Eliot Ness eventually left federal service and moved into local law enforcement, had books written about him and was celebrated in television and film.  Ariel Rios had no such opportunity because he lost his life at the age of 28, a young father and husband with a bright future ahead of him.

Congress saw fit to honor not just Ariel Rios the man, but also what he represented.  For 30 years, we honored a man whose sacrifice meant he never had an opportunity to become famous or celebrated, paying tribute to every other officer who suffered the same fate.  Ariel Rios is not more important than the others who have lost their lives protecting us, but as the first ATF agent murdered in the line of duty, he was chosen to represent them all.  

The designation of the Ariel Rios Memorial Building was meant to be a permanent fulfillment of our collective vow to “never forget,” not one that could be discarded when a new generation is ready to do just that.

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington has the names of new officers killed in the line of duty etched in its walls every year.  Most of them young men and women who, like Ariel Rios, will never have the opportunities Eliot Ness had.

Retaining the memorial designation of the only federal building in Washington named for a frontline law enforcement officer is not just important, it is a sacred obligation. Eliot Ness would find anything less dishonorable.

Lightfoot represented congressional districts in Iowa from 1985 to 1997.

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