Saturday, December 10, 2005

What Not To Do When Challenged by Police, Part Two: The Fallacy of Shooting to Wound

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

Theodore Roosevelt,
"Citizenship in a Republic," Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910
Earlier this week a man was shot and killed by US air marshals. Rigoberto Alpizar, a Latin American native and naturalized American citizen, allegedly announced that he had a bomb in his carry-on bag. Two federal marshals were on the plane and confronted Alpizar, and he fled back off of the plane onto the gateway where he was cornered by the marshals. Alpizar refused to comply with the marshals' demands to place his carry-on bag on the ground and instead reached inside the bag, whereopon he was shot repeatedly by the marshals.

Given that what the marshals report is true (what they believed they saw), then the marshals did exactly what they were supposed to do: they neutralized a potential terrorist who ignored repeated warnings at gunpoint. However, Alpizar was not a terrorist, nor did he have a bomb in his carry-on. Instead, he was a diagnosed manic-depressive individual who had failed to take his meds and was clearly mentally unstable.

Of course, talking heads such as NBC's Katie Couric wondered why the marshals couldn't shoot to wound, disabling suspected terrorists instead of killing people like Alpizar, who with the benefit of hindsight was not a terrorist but instead a disturbed individual. What Couric and her ilk fail to understand is that in such a situation law enforcement has a very hard choice to make: do we ensure that we stop this individual who is exhibiting all the behavior of a terrorist because he may be mentally ill, or do we act in a manner that gives a dedicated terrorist a real chance of completing his mission to spare the occasional innocent but deranged person? The proper answer is, and has to be, of course you neutralize someone who has satisfied the threat triad of ability ("I've got a bomb!"), opportunity (on a crowded airplane), and jeopardy (reaching into a backpack despite orders to the contrary, at gunpoint). Couric's ambivalence to this, and in fact her wishing for another way out, is in my opinion a tacit admission that she lacks the courage to make the hard choice... yet feels no reluctance to criticize those who do.

More Roosevelt:
"Criticism is necessary and useful; it is often indispensable; but it can never take the place of action, or be even a poor substitute for it. The function of the mere critic is of very subordinate usefulness. It is the doer of deeds who actually counts in the battle for life, and not the man who looks on and says how the fight ought to be fought, without himself sharing the stress and the danger." (1894) Ibid
More and more, I think the major problem with America is that too many people without the necessary knowledge and experience believe that freedom of speech gives them the right to criticize about things which they know very little. Yes, everyone has the right to speak and to their opinion, but everyone also has the obligation to base their opinions on facts. When Katie Couric gets out of her New York studio and attends training with law enforcement, learns how to shoot a handgun and how hard it is to hit with one, and then runs through some realistic roleplaying situations and can handle the challenges without making mistakes, then she might have a better understanding of what it is she speaks. Alas, only in America can a perky airhead make eight figures.

Not that all criticism of this incident is unwarranted. There are several points to be made here. First, Alpizar's death is a tragedy, as I'm sure everyone including the air marshals who were forced to shoot him agrees. Second, Alpizar's wife knew that he was off his meds, that he was suffering from symptoms of his mental disorder before he boarded the plane, and yet she allowed him to board the plane anyway. What on earth was she thinking? Or, was she even thinking?

Third, and most important, in this day of heightened security due to the very real threat of terrorism, anyone who fails to immediately comply with law enforcement in a high security environment, or who otherwise behaves in a manner that is indistinguishable from terrorist behavior faces swift and certain death. Unfortunately, there is no other alternative.

We saw the same thing happen in London a few weeks after the subway bombings last summer. When the police are on heightened alert, everything will be evaluated in the context of a possible terrorist attack.

It bears repeating: if you don't want the hounds to chase you, don't act like the fox.

NB: Part I is here.

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