In the weeks after the Hurricane Katrina debacle, many media commentators
gushed about how the Fourth Estate had finally rediscovered its courage in exposing
government debacles. However, the reports of spinal recovery were premature.
Two air marshals gunned down an American citizen last week in Miami
and most of the establishment media seemingly couldn't care less. Immediately
after 44-year-old Rigoberto Alpizar died on Dec. 7 in a hail of bullets from
two air marshals, Dave Adams, a spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service,
told CNN that Alpizar had shouted "I have a bomb in my bag" as he
ran up and down the aisle of the plane as it sat on the runway. This was the
version of events that the vast majority of the media repeated unquestioningly
in the first days after the killing.
However, online articles on Dec. 8 by Time.com and CNN.com contained quotes from
passengers debunking the feds' story. The Orlando Sentinel reported on Dec. 9:
"Seven passengers interviewed by the Orlando Sentinel -- seated in both the
front and rear of the main passenger cabin -- said Alpizar was silent as he ran
past them on his way to the exit." No passenger the Sentinel spoke to offered
any account akin to what the feds claimed.
It is not yet clear exactly what happened on Dec. 7 at the Miami airport. But
the primary justification the feds offered for using deadly force did not survive
even two full news cycles.
Regardless, the conservative press rushed to exonerate. Investors Business
Daily, in a Dec. 9 editorial, hailed the marshals' action: "The Miami incident
lets all Americans know -- and puts would-be terrorists on notice -- that we
are able and willing to use lethal force to kill someone viewed as a potential
threat." The Washington Times derided any "second-guessing" and
drew the happy moral to the story: "Mr. Alpizar's death is a reminder of
how seriously the marshals treat airline security. We should all take due notice."
But other publications also raced to take the government's word. A Washington
Post editorial on December 9 proclaimed, "There is, at this stage, no reason
to doubt the official account of the slaying Wednesday of Rigoberto Alpizar
by federal air marshals in Miami." The Post editorial was reprinted in
numerous papers the following day. Apparently, the official account had instantaneously
The Boston Herald on Dec. 10 used the killing to slap down anyone who would
grouse about TSA checkpoint delays: "The shooting of a passenger on an
American Airlines flight bound for Orlando is a reminder to passengers harping
on frustrating lines at security checkpoints, that aviation security is a deadly
serious business." The Herald did see one risk from the killing: "Members
of Congress ought not use the excuse of the Miami incident to stick their noses
into a layer of security that is clearly the most effective defense we have
against future hijackings." But oversight has been an unnatural act for
members of Congress since at least 9/11, so the Herald has little to fear.
Newspaper editorial writers were hell-bent on promulgating the government version
of events. The Louisville Courier-Journal announced in a Dec. 10 editorial:
"The passenger, Rigoberto Alpizar, a naturalized American citizen said
to be suffering from bipolar disorder, shouted that he had a bomb and ran from
a plane." The crucial medical problem in this case was not Alpizar's bipolar
disorder but the pervasive attention deficits among American editorial writers.
A Memphis Commercial Appeal editorial on Dec. 12 explained the marshals' dilemma:
"A youngish [44 years old?] male bolts from his seat in the rear of the
plane and sprints toward the cockpit, yelling that he has a bomb." This
is an interesting hypothetical but the only people who report that Alpizar claimed
he had a bomb are spokesmen for federal agencies. Regardless of how many passengers
directly contradict this key claim, the feds' version of the killing is correct
because the government said so.
The Daily Oklahoman, on Dec. 12, asked, "when Alpizar became agitated
and began running down the aisle of the airplane, claiming he had a bomb in
his bag, what were marshals to think?" The Oklahoman assured its readers
that "We're not about to second guess" the marshals. Or to fact check
The Brahmins at PBS NewsHour announced in an online article on Dec. 12: "No
serious questions have been raised about the actions of the air marshals who
killed the passenger last week." Apparently, it is not serious if federal
officials apparently make false claims in a case in which an American citizen
A Dec. 13 Pittsburgh Post Gazette editorial relied on a slightly different
quote to buttress the killing: "According to law enforcement officials,
Alpizar 'uttered threatening words that included a sentence to the effect that
he had a bomb." It is a long ways from someone running up and down aisle
shouting about having a bomb to using threatening words to the effect that he
had a bomb. What sort of sentence includes threatening words "to the effect"
that one has a bomb -- but apparently does not include the word bomb? Alpizar
was not an English professor giving a lecture on deconstructionism at the time
he was shot. The feds may be backtracking -- and newspaper editorial writers
are rolling out the red carpet for every step.
The Post-Gazette concluded: "But by all initial accounts, the marshals
did their job." Except for the accounts of the passengers on the plane
who said they never heard Alpizar mention a bomb. But mere private citizens
don't count, since they do not provide exclusive access and hot tips to newspaper
writers and editors.
Some editorials called for an independent investigation of the shooting. This
is a triumph of hope over experience, given how such investigations over the
past 15 years almost always whitewashed federal action. Perhaps some truth will
seep out as a result of jurisdictional conflicts between the Federal Air Marshal
Service and the FBI or Miami police. If the media continue acting like the cop
on South Park -- "Nothing to see here, folks, just move along," the
odds of any such revelation go from slim to none.
Perhaps if Alpizar had regularly attended Georgetown dinner parties, the media
would show more curiosity about his fate. In the old days, Americans were taught
that the media would serve as a check and a balance on government powers. The
same media docility that helped the Bush administration sell the war in Iraq
is still there, now serving Leviathan on the homefront.
James Bovard (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is the author of the forthcoming "Attention Deficit Democracy" (Palgrave,
January 2006), "Terrorism & Tyranny" (Palgrave, 2003), and seven