Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Last week, as everyone surely knows, US Air Marshals shot and killed Rigoberto Alpizar at the Miami International Airport after believing him to be a terrorist. This was a shameful tragedy that is somehow, not really on the national media scene, but should be. I've been thinking about this incident and I wanted to say several things.

First and foremost, I want to urge everyone to resist "blaming the victim". I've had thoughts like, "his wife shouldn't have let him on the plane," "his wife should have told someone before he got on the plane that he was mentally ill and didn't have his medication," or, "he should never have traveled without his medication." It's only natural and human to think those things. But, I don't think any of those are fair. Of course if they had known what was to happen, they would never have stepped on the plane. Hindsight is always 20-20 and there was no way they could have expected this to happen. So I'm checking myself out of victim blaming here.

Continuing, I have no idea if the US anti-terrorism forces (Air Marshals, what have you) have a "shoot to kill" policy. I know that in the UK, when the Brazilian was shot in the Tube, the authorities simply acknowledged that they had a shoot to kill policy and defended it. The British have always had a bit of a stiff upper lip, so that's no surprise. But, I highly doubt the US will admit to something like that openly. In fact, they'll probably parrot out the line that my co-worker and Nob General said the other day: "the US doesn't have a 'shoot to kill' policy, we have a 'shoot to stop' policy." As if there is any difference.

I also want to make it clear that I have no idea what the optimal strategy is for dealing with would be terrorists or suspected terrorists. More qualified people than I have been grappling with that issue for quite some time and they probably don't have much in the way of answers. So, this post is in no means intended to denigrate the officers that shot and killed Mr. Alpizar last week. Instead, this post is an open question for which I have few answers and only a slight inclination.

Before I get to the meat of my issue, let me say that I believe (and the evidence is forthcoming) that Mr. Alpizar never said "bomb". In fact, I'd be shocked if any of the initial reports were true. This opinion isn't based on the facts on the ground in Florida. Instead, it's based on what happened to Mr. De Menezes in the London Tube in July. The initial reports were that De Menezes had run from the police, was wearing a heavy jacket in the summer, had wires coming out of the jacket, had jumped the ticket gates, and had not stopped when police identified themselves and ordered him to stop. While that version of the story gave great credence to the shooting, we later learned that none of it was true. Let me repeat: NONE OF IT WAS TRUE. He did not have a heavy jacket, did not have any loose wires, did not jump the ticket gate, did not run from police, and the police never identified themselves. Short of any conspiracy theories about state sanctioned murder, the police overreacted given the heightened tensions in the weeks after 7/7.

All of that influences my opinion on last week's shooting. I don't think initial media reports are very reliable in these types of situations. In fact, as reported in the Post last Friday, the first time the eyewitnesses (passengers) heard the word "bomb" was when the FBI brought it up in the questioning process. The relevant quote reads:

"The first time I heard the word 'bomb' was when I was interviewed by the FBI...They kept asking if I heard him say the B-word. And I said, 'What is the B-word?' And they were like, 'Bomb.' I said no. They said, 'Are you sure?' And I am."

I fully expect, if the media decides to follow this story, that it will become clear that Alpizar freaked out because he didn't have his medicine, was acting strange, ran off the plane, and was shot and killed because that's how the Air Marshals are trained to respond. I also expect that the detail "he reached into his bag" is likely to be proven false as well. At any rate, I don't blame the Marshals in this situation. It was a tense moment where they undoubtedly believed that there was a grave risk of a serious incident and they took action to alleviate that risk. That's what they're trained to do.

That being said, innocent men have now been killed in two different countries because the police are trained to have the finger on the hairtrigger. I don't think that's right. My hunch is that terrorists aren't likely to announce to the world that they have bombs. My hunch is that terrorists aren't going to go through multiple security checks at an airport and make it to the plane with a bomb. My hunch is, we've taken a dangerous step that doesn't make any of us safer, but might make us feel a bit safer.

In fact, I'd go as far to say that the Alpizar shooting is just the latest in sacrifices our nation has made since 9/11 that have not made us one iota safer, but have applied a thin veneer of reassurance to a jumpy public anxious to avoid future incidents of terrorism, even if that means killing 100,000 Iraqi's in the process. From color coded threat levels to excessive government monitoring of US citizens (Patriot Act), to unwarranted prosecutions of innocents (still no Patriot Act convictions), to imprisonment and torture of combatants, and finally the latest shooting, America is paying a price for 9/11 that we should not bear. These things don't make us safer, but they might make some people feel safer, and that's enough for the average run of the mill politician.

One of the great things about this country is that we are open to the world, we have globally respected freedom, and that we are the land of opportunity. I like that society; I like those ideals. What I don't like is that all of our defiance in the face of terrorism, claims that we "won't change our way of life" because of terrorists are all false. We have changed our way of life. We do live in a culture where if you "act in an unsafe manner" you could be shot by the police. We are willing to sacrifice some of our fundamental freedoms to "increase security". I, for one, stand opposed to that. I like that I can say whatever they hell I want to say without the government hauling me away to jail. I like that I don't have to be nervously paranoid about the cops at the airport. I like that America is (was) universally respected for its freedoms and opportunities. And really, why should we allow 9/11 to fundamentally alter the landscape of American culture?

Really, the big question is not: Should the police have a shoot-to-kill policy? No, the big question is, do we want to live in a society where we shoot first and ask questions later?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The outcome of this incident is indeed very unfortunate. That said, there was gross negligence in taking a mentally ill person on an airplane without medication. In my opinion, every passenger on that plane was put in danger by doing so.

9:42 AM  
Blogger SJH said...

"gross negligence"? that's a bit strong. we have no idea the circumstances, but it could have been a situation where they ran out of medication, they lost it on holiday, or whatnot - i.e. they may not have had any choice.

but, like i said, i'll not engage in victim blaming to assuage our collective consciences.

10:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You may not want to "blame the victim" but this isn't a simple black and white episode where all the fault lies with one party. The responsibility for this should come from a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B. I'm sure the air marshals didn't shoot without what they perceived to be provacation and I'm also sure that the victim didn't set out to get himself killed but at the same time must have done something exotic enough to gain the attention of law enforcement. If there had been a bomb, and it went off, the press (and you) would have had a field day on Homeland Security once you found out there was a marshall on board and he didn't prevent the bomb from going off!

5:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And you think we don't share information with other governments... http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/americas/12/14/fake.hundreds.ap/index.html

11:12 PM  

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