It’s late and I really want to go to bed so I’m going to make this quick.
At about 2.15pm today (Dec 7, Wed), US air marshals shot and killed Rigoberto Alpizar, a 44-year-old home-improvement store worker, as he ran off an American Airlines jet in Miami after allegedly indicating that he had a bomb in his backpack (which he supposedly reached into while running off the plane). He was travelling with his wife who reportedly had run after him claiming that her husband had bipolar disorder and needed to take medication. After Alpizar had been killed it was confirmed that he had not been carrying any explosive device.
The first I heard about this news was from several Americans who all expressed the same sentiment: “I feel so much safer knowing that US Air Marshals are doing their jobs to protect people from terrorists.” I was left reeling when I heard this.
The fact that the dominant popular US reaction to this incident seems to be unironic, unqualified satisfaction with the result was really quite shocking to me. Having been right in the thick of the action when a similar tragic incident occured in London in July (which I also blogged about here), I can report that the British reaction was quite different. People felt far more conflicted about the event, and many people felt even less safe afterward.
I think the difference is that Americans seem much more willing to make the following (shaky, I say) assumptions:
1) They are truly under attack and vulnerable to terrorist attacks. “Especially in airports and on airplanes.”
2) Preemptive violence is a good solution to defuse or eliminate these threats, and in fact is the only possible response. “What else can you do? If someone says the word ‘bomb’ on a plane and then runs away, of course you should shoot him to save the lives of everyone else on the plane.”
These two assumptions allow many Americans to overcome the long-standing American distrust of the government and law enforcement to say things like “Air Marshals are well-trained counter-terrorism experts who know how to correctly assess the situation.”
(Actually, according to USA Today, training for Air Marshals with “no law enforcement experience” was cut from 14 weeks to just 5 weeks before 2002, and in 2004 “the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general issued a scathing report that cited air marshals sleeping on the job, testing positive for alcohol or drugs, losing weapons and falsifying reports.” No quite so credible, if you ask me.)
More importantly, the two assumptions I listed lead Americans to do one of two things:
a) they fill in the many gaps in the available information (what exactly did the man say? Did he appear drunk or drugged? Did he appear clearly mentally ill?) to paint a mental picture where the Air Marshals did the only possible thing. (“He announced he had a bomb and then tried to run away even when the Air Marshals told him to stop.”)
b) they focus only on the existing facts and insist that this is enough to condemn this man to a quick execution and assume that no other contextual information could change their reading of the situation. “He said ‘bomb’ on an airplane and ran. That’s exactly what Air Marshals are trained to react to.”
If you ask me, I find the British response far more reasonable for its willingness to be self-reflexive about the underlying assumptions and the awareness at the time that the full facts were not yet known and that these particulars could make a critical difference to how a tragic death should be perceived. In contrast the American response seems both unthinkingly instinctive and dangerously unfounded.
Next time, I argue that African nations should not spend any money subsidizing or providing Anti-RetroViral (ARV) drugs to HIV positive individuals. Yay controversy.