Shooting the Mentally Ill

Forty-four year old Rigoberto Alpizar, an American citizen born in Costa Rica was killed by federal air marshals on Wednesday as he fled an American Airlines jet at Miami International Airport. Federal officials claim he threatened that he had a bomb and the shooting was necessary to protect passengers in the terminal.

According to passengers, he bolted from his seat, followed by his frantic wife, who was screaming that he was bipolar and off his medication. As he fled toward the terminal, undercover agents shot him on the jet bridge, claiming that he refused to stop and that he made a statement about a bomb. Passengers say he was shot four or five times.

Alpizar, a resident of Maitland, Florida who worked in the paint department of Home Depot, was on his way home from Quito Ecuador, where he and his wife were on a church mission. Family, friends, and neighbors describe a well-liked man completely different from the one portrayed in news accounts – smiling, talkative, proud to be a citizen .

The air marshals claim that Alpizar was acting aggressively even when he boarded.

If so, why was he allowed to board and not just escorted away immediately?

They say he might have blown up the plane.

If so, why did he run out of it?

They say he intended to blow up the terminal.

If so, why did he board?

And why was he shot 4-6 times?

A police bomb squad unit with dogs sniffed through all baggage.

They found no bomb.

A SWAT team surrounded the jet, had all passengers put their hands on their heads and blew up two bags. Alpizar was found to have no tie to terrorism.

We have only the two undercover marshals’ word that Alpizar ever said he had a bomb. Passenger Alan Tirpak, one of several who heard Alpizar’s wife talk about his illness, said Alpizar did not say anything about a bomb. He is supported by other passengers.

A pilot who sat next to Mrs. Alpizar and reassured her was aware of the real situation.

Why weren’t the marshals?

Federal air marshals have to meet the highest standards of any federal agents in skill in shooting. Why was it not possible to disable the man without killing him?

Amnesty International has long noted the problem of police using excessive force, including deadly force, against mentally ill or disturbed people who could have been subdued with less extreme measures.

In 2000, Chicago police shot and killed a deranged Arthur Hutchinson, who was menacing an officer with just a fork. In 2002, they shot and killed a deranged Tim Crotty who was menacing an officer with a four-inch knife.

Even in cases of more serious threat, much less force could usually have been used.

In August 1999, Gidone Busch, a mentally ill man wielding a hammer, died after NYPD officers shot at him 12 times. The case led to community protests over why the six officers at the scene could not have subdued him less violently.

The same could be asked of the May 1999 LAPD shooting of Margaret Laverne Mitchell, a frail, mentally ill, homeless 55-year-old woman who lunged at an officer with a screwdriver while he and another officer were questioning her about a shopping cart she was pushing.

The White House stands behind the shooting. It would have to.

It was the White House which after 9-11 expanded the air marshal program from only 33 once to over six thousand. Armed with guns and digital surveillance, they travel on planes alert for the slightest threat. The Aviation and Transportation Security Act signed by Bush two months after 9-11 authorizes them to travel on domestic passenger flights, which is how Rigoberto Alpizar came to their notice.

Officials claim the shooting was justified by the perceived threat.

But how is it then that on December 3, 2001, pilots and crew, without any marshals present, were able to subdue Richard Reid who really did have a bomb?

Is this what happens when civilian functions increasingly become penetrated by military tactics and attitudes; when police and military functions blur; when personnel from all branches of military act as police on foreign and domestic soil and conversely, when police – local, state and federal – act more as special ops military units, sometimes with black Ninja suits and automatic weapons?

Not all potentially dangerous situations call for a militarized response. Bush ought to know that from Iraq. Bringing a combat mentality and a war-like response into a civilian situation was how the crime of 9-11 in New York resulted in an illegal and unwinnable military adventure in Iraq.

It also looks like the real reason why some one in need of medical help ended up shot.

LILA RAJIVA is a free-lance journalist and author of “The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American media,” (Monthly Review Press). She can be reached at: