Ragged Edge Online Home

'It Could Happen To Many Of Us'

By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express (subscribe)

There's added uneasiness in the air this holiday season.

Many people who have disabilities or mental illnesses, their friends and family members are on heightened alert following the December 7 shooting death by federal air marshals of a man with bipolar disorder whom they mistook for a terrorist.

Rigoberto Alpizar was shot by federal air marshals on the jetway outside American Airlines Flight 924 at Miami International Airport. The federal undercover officers said Alpizar, who ran out of the plane as passengers were boarding, said he was going to blow up the plane, then failed to follow their instructions to get down on the ground, and reached for his carry-on bag.

It was later learned that Alpizar was not a terrorist, but was in the manic phase of bipolar disorder and had not taken his medication.

In news articles, weblogs and email discussion groups, many disability advocates have expressed added anxiety over traveling this holiday season. Some called Alpizar's death an "unnecessary" use of force, that air marshals should have taken measures to determine whether the 38-year-old Florida man had a mental illness, or, in the least, used non-lethal means to stop him, such as taser stun guns or bean bag guns.

"Baggage inspectors, screeners and federal marshals -- the latter holding the power of life and death in their hands -- should be trained to understand that some of us who are less than perfect physically, and perhaps mentally, will be traveling through airports," wrote Gregory N. Joseph, of Glendale, Arizona, on a USA Today opinion page. Joseph explained that he has bipolar disorder and hearing-related disabilities.

"Contrary to what some seem to believe, killing us does not make the country safer but rather more terrifying for people like me, who deserve the same privileges, respect and freedoms as anyone else does."

"It may not be because someone's trying to be a jerk but maybe because the person's mentally ill," said Risdon Slate, a criminology professor at Florida Southern College in Lakeland. Slate, who himself has bipolar disorder, trains law enforcement officers on how to calm people who are in psychiatric crises.

Slate told the Press Enterprise that he hopes the federal government re-examines how it trains air marshals to deal with people that have mental disabilities or illnesses.

"Unfortunately . . . crisis drives policy," he explained.

The Press Enterprise cited information from the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, showing that the rapid growth in the air marshal program after 9/11 caused the federal government to cut short some training, including training on how to deal with unusual behaviors.

Others in and out of the disability community, particularly the federal government, have argued that the current terrorist threat justifies the air marshals' "shoot first, ask questions later" approach to airline security.

Less than a week after Alpizar's death, the Transportation Security Administration announced plans to expand the federal air marshal program to include trains, buses and ferries.

When I learned that the "suspected terrorist" killed by federal air marshals in Miami was actually an American with bipolar disorder, my first thought was that this could easily happen to a number of people I know, including myself, under the right set of circumstances.

But then I wondered if any of us have believed that this kind of thing would not happen at some point. Perhaps it was a matter of not "if", but "when".

Historically speaking, it's always been dangerous -- or fatal -- to act in "unusual" or "puzzling" ways. Every week, it seems, we see another example of someone's life being extinguished, either by law enforcement or caregivers, because they did not -- or could not -- follow someone else's instructions.

The difference now is that this is in the national spotlight, and homeland security appears to be a justification for "shoot first and ask questions later" on jetliners.

Air travel by itself makes many people anxious. The events of 9/11 made that worse, as we realized the actions of those flying with us can literally determine whether we live or die.

Passengers aboard Flight 924 said that, after Rigoberto Alpizar ran through the plane toward first class, his wife of 20 years, Anne Buechner, followed, yelling that he had a mental illness and had not taken his medication.

It did no good. Federal marshals have been trained to deal with people behaving like Alpizar as a threat.

Many experts and others claim that the officers would have been criticized worse had Alpizar been a true bomber, and had his wife been a co-conspirator attempting to identify and distract the air marshals.

After her husband's death, she said she blamed herself for allowing him on the aircraft in his agitated state.

Now, air travel with someone who seems anxious, or "out of control", will no doubt appear more dangerous, and in fact will likely be more dangerous because of the reaction of passengers, including federal air marshals.

Unfortunately, anyone acting "suspiciously" may be feared nearly as much as would-be hijackers.

This may be the best time to redouble our efforts to explain to others that the vast majority of people who experience mental illness or psychiatric crises are not a threat to anyone, but that they are more likely to be victimized by others.

May Peace be with you and yours this season.


"Passengers Didn't Hear Alpizar Say 'Bomb' in MIA Incident" (AP Online)

"Bipolar reactions" (Miami Herald)

"Are Air Marshals Prepared to Handle Mentally Ill Passengers?" (Press Enterprise)

"Air Marshal Program Under Lens After Passenger Shot" (PBS NewsHour)

Ragged Edge readers' comments about the Alpizar tragedy

News powered by Inclusion Daily Express

Subscribe to Inclusion Daily Express