Dead Man Tells No Tales

Media docility and another no-cost federal killing


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 December 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" while running up and down the aisle of an American Airlines 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 December 8 by Time.com and CNN.com contained quotes from passengers debunking the feds' story. The Orlando Sentinel reported on December 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 at Miami International Airport. But the primary justification the feds offered for using deadly force did not survive even two full news cycles.

Nevertheless, the conservative press rushed to exonerate. Investors Business Daily, in a December 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.

The Boston Herald on December 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."

Newspaper editorial writers were hellbent on promulgating the government version of events. The Louisville Courier-Journal announced in a December 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."

A Memphis Commercial Appeal editorial on Monday 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." On the same day, the Daily Oklahoman, 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.

The Brahmins at PBS NewsHour announced in an online article: "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 is killed.

But yesterday, a Pittsburgh Post Gazette editorial quoted a statement that indicated federal officials are reacting to the unraveling of their story by slightly modifying the way they describe 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 way from running up and down aisle shouting about having a bomb to using unspecified "threatening words." What sort of sentence includes threatening words "to the effect" that one has a bomb—but apparently does not include the word bomb?

The Post-Gazette was less interested in asking these questions than in helping the feds backtrack, concluding, "[B]y 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.

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. Even in that case, if the media continue acting like South Park's Officer Barbrady—"Nothing to see here, folks, just move along"—the odds of any such revelation go from slim to none.

In the old days, Americans were taught that the media would serve as a check and a balance on government powers. That platitude is fading as news professionals show less regard for private citizens than for government officials who can provide exclusive access and hot tips. Perhaps if Alpizar had regularly attended Georgetown dinner parties, the media would show more curiosity about his fate.

James Bovard is the author of the forthcoming Attention Deficit Democracy (Palgrave, January 2006), Terrorism & Tyranny (Palgrave, 2003), and seven other books. He also maintains a personal blog.