Friday, December 09, 2005

Does it Really Matter Whether He Said “Bomb” Or Not?

I suppose this shouldn’t be very surprising:

MIAMI - The airline passenger shot to death by federal marshals who said he made a bomb threat was agitated even before boarding and later appeared to be desperate to get off the plane, some fellow travelers said. One passenger said he "absolutely never heard the word 'bomb' at all" during the uproar as the Orlando-bound flight prepared to leave Miami on Wednesday.

Federal officials say Rigoberto Alpizar made the threat in the jetway, after running up the plane's aisle from his seat at the back of the jetliner. They opened fire because the 44-year-old Home Depot employee ignored their orders to stop, reached into his backpack and said he had a bomb, according to authorities.

Alpizar's brother, speaking from Costa Rica, said he would never believe the shooting was necessary.

"I can't conceive that the marshals wouldn't be able to overpower an unarmed, single man, especially knowing he had already cleared every security check," Carlos Alpizar told The Orlando Sentinel.

While there is no question that this is a tragic loss for the family of Rigoberto Alpizar, I don’t believe federal marshals should be blamed for doing their job. They are not placed on commercial airliners to simply take up space; they are there to make split second decisions that can mean the difference between life and death for the passengers on the flight, and quite possibly, others on the ground.

The events that occurred on Wednesday are the result of a lesson learned in the aftermath of 9/11: Reaction to threats must be quick and decisive in order to be effective.

Hindsight allows an event to be analyzed in slow motion to determine many things, including mistakes made, but it is not a tool available to those who must react quickly in the face of a potential disaster. There simply is not enough time.

It may well be determined that Mr. Alpizar posed no real threat to the airplane when all the facts are in, but I’m not sure that really matters in the end. The marshals reacted to the information that was available to them, and by all accounts the threat was enormous. To me, the real tragedy would have been inaction.

Consider the events that transpired: Mr. Alpizar ignored orders to stop and reached into a backpack saying he had a bomb. Even if Mr. Alpizar didn’t say he had a bomb and everything else remained the same, I would prefer the air marshals not wait for him to prove it. Whether or not he had a bomb, I think, is irrelevant.

I may take some heat for this, but I have to ask the question: If a person is bipolar and has not been taking his medication to treat the illness, why is it necessary to bring that person on an airplane in the first place? It seems to me the last thing his wife should have done was to allow her husband to get anywhere near an airport in his condition. Even if she had told the air marshals he was bipolar and his illness was the reason for his behavior, are the air marshals supposed to take her word for it?

I admit the benefit of hindsight can also be applied to her actions that day and if she had it all to do over again, she may not have chosen to board the plane with her husband. Is it really fair to blame the air marshals for their reactions without also looking at what the victims could have done to avoid the situation all together? I don’t think it is.

Again, I’m not trying to be unsympathetic here, but facts are facts. Rigoberto Alpizar was acting in a manner that was likely to get him killed by an air marshal. Whether you think what happened was right or wrong, you can’t honestly blame the marshals for reacting to the situation and doing their job.

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