The war on terror: Miami

The shooting of Rigoberto Alpizar wasn't just a horrible mistake. It was also a major setback for sane airport security.

By Patrick Smith

Published December 9, 2005 6:38PM (EST)

On Wednesday afternoon at Miami International Airport, two sky marshals shot and killed an apparently unarmed and mentally unstable passenger. The dead man was 44-year-old Rigoberto Alpizar, a U.S. citizen living in Florida. He and his wife had arrived earlier in the day on a flight from Quito, Ecuador, after a working holiday as church missionaries.

According to reports, shortly after the couple had taken their seats in the American Airlines Boeing 757, Alpizar began acting erratically: jumping up, shouting and claiming to have a bomb. He was shot after running up the aisle toward the cockpit, collapsing into the jetway after ignoring orders to get down, and reaching into a bag for what the marshals took to be a weapon or explosive device. As many as six rounds may have been fired.

Were the marshals justified in shooting? For now that's an impossible question to answer from afar, but already there is controversy brewing. At least one passenger has stepped forward to say that Alpizar did not, in fact, make any mention of a bomb. Other witnesses claim that as he dashed up the aisle, his wife attempted to intervene, explaining that her husband suffered from a bipolar disorder and had neglected to take his medication. "My husband! My husband!" she shouted. Earlier allegations that the wife spoke only in Spanish -- and that agents, guns drawn, were unable to understand -- are now being discounted. One of the agents, a former U.S. Customs inspector, is said to be fluent in Spanish.

The aircraft, bound from Miami to Orlando as part of a connecting service from Medellín, Colombia, was docked at the gate. It would seem rather improbable that a terrorist would go running up the aisle of a yet-to-depart jetliner announcing he had a bomb, then dash into the jetway. Then again, the air crime annals are full of strange occurrences, and from a sky marshal's perspective, the psychological state of a would-be saboteur is not open for slow and careful analysis in a situation that calls for instant decision making. Rigoberto Alpizar, many will contend, regardless of his intentions or state of mind, had it coming.

In the days ahead, you can expect sharp debate on whether the killing was justified, and whether the nation's several thousand air marshals -- their exact number is a tightly guarded secret -- undergo sufficient training. How are they taught to deal with mentally ill individuals who might be unpredictable and unstable, but not necessarily dangerous? Are the rules of engagement overly aggressive?

Those are fair questions, but not the most important ones.

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.

Although Alpizar had lived in the United States for two decades, he was born in Costa Rica. Speaking on Alpizar's behalf, Costa Rican President Abel Pacheco said he would push for an inquiry, taking the opportunity to indict the American mindset. "It was a painful event," Pacheco told a radio interviewer. "But you have to understand the level of paranoia under which the Americans live regarding terrorism."

The Costa Rican president's involvement, which clearly involves a degree of busybody politicking, is reminiscent of Brazil's response after one of its citizens, Jean Charles de Menezes, was mistaken for a terrorist and killed by police in Britain on July 22. London was on high alert after bus and subway bombings earlier that month killed more than 50 commuters. (In a coincidence both eerie and symbolic, one can't help noticing a strong physical resemblance between de Menezes and Alpizar.)

In the moments that followed the shooting, the remaining 113 passengers on flight 924 were paraded onto the tarmac, hands on their heads, and taken away for questioning. The entire terminal was shut down. The FBI spoke of potential terrorist plots and were "looking to see if there's a nexus." Security was beefed up in terminals nationwide. Here at my hometown airport, Boston's Logan, state police reinforcements were called in, some toting assault weapons. Speaking in the Boston Globe, an airport spokeswoman described that response as "prudent."

In other words, the tragedy in Miami is apt to result in yet another round of heightened security at airports all over the nation. With the Christmas travel rush looming, the timing couldn't be worse, and rest assured some officials and politicians will be using Wednesday's shooting as fodder to rail against the planned relaxation of carry-on rules.

Effective Dec. 22, new regulations will allow airline passengers to once again carry certain sharp objects onto commercial flights. The Transportation Security Administration is relaxing its strictures on scissors with cutting blades shorter than four inches and tools such as screwdrivers, pliers and wrenches no longer than seven inches.

Here in Boston, from which two of the four Sept. 11 aircraft departed, the chief executive of the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), Craig P. Coy, dispatched a letter to TSA chief Kip Hawley detailing his opposition to the new protocols. U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., has gone so far as to introduce a bill aimed at maintaining the existing ban on most sharp implements. Markey calls his bill the "Leave All Blades Behind Act" -- a crafty tweak of the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act.

For some of us, the changes can't come fast enough. For the past four years, our insatiable fixation with pointed objects -- far and away the No. 1 topic in this columnist's pantheon of peeves -- has diverted the nation's security resources away from more legitimate concerns, while siphoning away the patience of tens of millions of fliers. Whatever enjoyment and dignity remained in the air travel experience has been summarily confiscated at the concourse metal detector, along with an estimated 30 million nail files, razors, pocketknives and other small tools.

The new regulations are a long-awaited acknowledgment of the extreme improbability that a Sept. 11-style copycat attack will be attempted or could succeed.

The introduction of armored cockpit doors, along with the increased vigilance of passengers and crew (with a number of pilots now authorized to carry guns), provides more than sufficient protection against hand-held weapons. The time and manpower saved by easing up on the confiscation of sharp objects can then be reassigned to other, more urgent tasks, such as hunting for explosives.

"Let's face it," TSA regional manager Ann Davis tells Ask the Pilot. "You can strangle somebody with a necktie if you really want to. It's time to focus on screening out intent, not just items themselves."

Terrorists, meanwhile, won't waste their time on schemes with such an extreme likelihood of failure.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for us. In America, reasoned debate and clear thinking aren't the useful currencies they once were, and backlash to the TSA's announcement has come from a host of unexpected sources -- members of Congress, flight attendants unions and families of Sept. 11 victims.

"The Bush administration proposal is just asking the next Mohammed Atta to move from box cutters to scissors," said Rep. Markey.

Actually, that Atta and his henchmen used box cutters to commandeer four aircraft means very little. Just as effectively, they could have employed snapped-off pieces of plastic, shattered bottles or, for that matter, their own bare fists and some clever wile. Sept. 11 had nothing to do with exploiting airport security and everything to do with exploiting our mindset at the time. What weapons the terrorists had or didn't have is essentially irrelevant. Hijackings, to that point in history, were perpetrated mainly through bluff, and while occasionally deadly, they seldom resulted in more than a temporary inconvenience -- diversions to Cuba or cities in the Middle East. The moment American flight 11 collided with the north tower of the World Trade Center, everything changed; good luck to the next skyjacker stupid enough to attempt the same stunt with anything less than a flamethrower in his hand.

"September 11th wasn't a failure of passenger screening; it was a failure of procedure," voices Bruce Schneier, a renowned security commentator and author of "Beyond Fear -- Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World." "We can't possibly keep all dangerous things off airplanes. Our only hope for security is to reduce the effectiveness of those dangerous things once they're on board. Exactly two things have improved air passenger security since the 2001 attacks: reinforcing the cockpit door, and teaching passengers that they need to fight back. Everything else has been a waste of money."

In any event, even a child has the means and imagination to fashion a sharp and dangerous object -- more dangerous than any wrench or pair of scissors -- from just about anything. Does this not nullify attempts to confiscate pointed tools?

Not according to Justin Green, an attorney representing the families of three crew members murdered on Sept. 11, two of whom were stabbed. "The terrorists used box cutters, knives and chemical weapons to take over the airplanes," responds Green. "They did not fashion weapons from snapped-off plastic or shattered bottles. On American Airlines Flight 11, two flight attendants and a passenger were stabbed with weapons that are similar in kind to the weapons that the TSA supports allowing back on board airliners.

"The weapons used by the terrorists were a central part of their strategy." Green contends that "there is no basis for the idea that the hijackings would have succeeded even if the weapons [had been] properly screened off."

There's no way to know that for certain, but it doesn't take a great leap of fantasy to assume that had box cutters been contraband items that day, which they were not, another weapon would easily have been improvised.

Thus far, one organization that has kept its head above the fray is the Air Line Pilots Association, the industry's biggest pilots union, with a membership representing four of the country's top five airlines. In a prepared statement, the organization voiced its support for the TSA's modifications, provided the agency is willing to take steps on other fronts. "ALPA feels that decreasing the prohibited list of potentially dangerous items, without making a matching increase in efforts to screen passengers for hostile intent, is not necessarily a step toward increased passenger and crew security."

Most pilots I spoke to concur with the ALPA's position. "I agree with the TSA position on scissors and small tools," says a United Airlines pilot. "Honestly, I wish they'd let us carry our Leatherman tools again."

But not all crew members are in lockstep. "Because a deadly blade can be fashioned from plastic or some other means doesn't mean box cutters themselves ought to be let on board," argues a first officer for a major airline, asking that his name and airline not be revealed. "It's a 'two wrongs don't make a right' construction."

This is almost acceptable, if only there weren't so many hours of squandered time and manpower in the balance. Nobody wants weapons on a jetliner. But, more critical, neither do we want to bog down the system. The longer we fuss at the metal detectors over low-threat objects, the greater we expose ourselves to the very serious dangers of bombs and explosives. TSA is not in need of more screeners; it's in need of reallocation of personnel and resources.

It was, we shouldn't forget, 17 years ago this month that Pan Am flight 103 was destroyed over Lockerbie, Scotland by a stash of Semtex hidden inside a Toshiba radio in a piece of checked luggage. Then as now, and perhaps for years to come, explosives were the most serious high-level threat facing commercial aviation. European authorities were quick to implement a sweeping revision of luggage-screening protocols designed to thwart another Lockerbie. It took almost 15 years, and the catastrophe of Sept. 11, before America began to do the same -- and a comprehensive system still isn't fully in place.

Flying was and remains exceptionally safe, but whether that's because or in spite of the system is tough to tell. The "war on terror" has left us fighting many enemies -- some real, many imagined. We'll figure things out at some point, maybe. Until then, dead in Miami, Rigoberto Alpizar is yet more collateral damage.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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