Friday, December 09, 2005

B is for Bomb, and Bungle
You may remember the story of the guy who was shot after jumping a turnstile on the London underground last summer, just days after July 7 bombings. At first, he was a terror suspect eluding police. Then, after a few days, he became a mysterious figure eluding police for reasons unclear. Eventually, it came out that he was pretty much just unlucky, in the wrong place at the wrong time, scared shitless, and ultimately dead because of it.

Why do I feel like the same thing is happening in the case of the man who was shot by air marshals in Miami on Wednesday? At first, Rigoberto Alpizar supposedly said he had a bomb. Now, 48 hours later, other people on the plane say they didn't hear him say anything about having a bomb--that he seemed more like a disturbed person, or someone having a panic attack and wanting off the plane, than a terrorist about to wreak havoc. The fact that Alpizar was "foreign" (Costa Rican, apparently--but an American citizen), not a native speaker of English, and on his way back from Medellin, Colombia, certainly didn't help.

Salon's Patrick Smith, who writes the magazine's highly useful and interesting Ask the Pilot, writes:
Wednesday's incident fulfills what many of us predicted ever since the Federal Air Marshals Service was widely expanded following the 2001 terror attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington: The first person killed by a sky marshal, whether through accident or misunderstanding, would not be a terrorist. In a lot of ways, Alpizar is the latest casualty of Sept. 11. He is not the victim of a trigger-happy federal marshal but of our own, now fully metastasized security mania.
There's an interesting discussion regarding what really happened over at Political Animal. Some readers (and Congressman John Mica of Florida, chairman of the House transportation subcommittee on aviation) are perfectly happy to have the occasional passenger get shot like this, because it shows that the marshal program is working, and they presume it will discourage potential terrorists. (Such a comfort that must be to the Alpizar family.) Others suggest that the Air Marshal Service shot itself (so to speak) in the foot by immediately putting out a version of the story that turns out to be false in several respects, rather than holding back details and waiting for an investigation to find out what really happened.

And what really happened looks to me like a case of marshals shooting first and asking questions later. Congressman Mica thinks that's a good thing--but everything I've read about Alpizar's behavior indicates that asking a couple of questions first wouldn't have caused any harm in his case, and would have prevented a great deal of it. Like, for example, finding out what he was saying. One Political Animal commenter suggests that the Spanish word for bathroom is "bano"--which sounds like "bomb," especially if your brain is inclining you to hear the word "bomb."

One of the head-scratchingest quotes to come out of the investigation is from passenger John McAlhany, who had a rifle pressed to his head during the few minutes after the incident when the marshals assumed that everyone on the plane was a potential terrorist. He says he didn't hear the word "bomb" until investigators asked him about it--and even then, he didn't hear it from them right away: "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 know you're not supposed to even think the word "bomb" in an airport, but come on: "the B-word"?

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