Friday, December 09, 2005

Security: bombs and blindfolds

What an unfortunate event is the death of Rigoberto Alpizar. It's terrible for those who know what is happening and cannot prevent the ending. It's just as horrible for those who can only find out when the event is over. So unavoidable and yet it wasn't. And we now have what will seem, if only for a short while, like an eternity live with it and discuss it.

Some one hundred were involved with all having had one hand on the elephant. Each, now with their blindfolds off, think they can explain what their hand had touched.

The story as it is unfolding still suggests one never had a blindfold -- Anne Buechner, Alpizar's wife, for she knew her husband was harmless. And yet she, as with her brother-in-law who will never believe the shooting was necessary, may have had the biggest blindfold of all - familiarity. For, familiarity, in cases such as this, blinds one to the fact that not everyone knows what you know as the event unfolds.

It is that blindness that prevents you from taking precautions when traveling in parts of the unknown world and there are none such more easily accessible than an airplane. It is so unknown that security is specifically placed there, undercover and even after passengers go through a mriad of checks, to prevent a disaster such this act mimicked in may ways. Yet Buechner, was totally blind to the possibility that it could be seen any other way than which see could see Mr. Alpizar's condition. Mr. Alpizar was also blinded to the deathly hazard he entered in flying while off his medication. And both were familiar with the enough with the 'elephant' to think nothing of advising in advance those people most needing to also be familiar with 'their elephant'.

Anne Buechner may for a long time to come rue not realizing she did indeed wear a blindfold, and I'll admit freely if being in the same situation it hardly would have occurred to me. I feel so very sorry for her. But as the story requires journalists to seek out others blindfolded both at the time and near to the elephant and those afar and still wearing them. The latter are the most interesting as they are sought out to provide the best perspective.

But let's start with at least one of the former ones, John McAlhany, the construction worker with the most to add as the journalists see it right now. Whether his knowledge from laying his hand of the elephant is the most compelling read or he's just the most willing to explain what he felt, he lacks the imagination to admit that his hand tells the storyof his encounter with the elephant. He says he did not hear Mr. Alpizar's say "bomb" in his run to get off the plane but he does not think that that might be because Mr. Alpizar didn't think it was that important that McAlhany hear him. In this report McAlhany asserts he "absolutely" did not hear Alpizar say "bomb." I'm reassured in man's condition that a person from around seat 21C didn't hear the word "bomb" spoken or yelled in the first class cabin during the tumult of a man knocking people over to get off a plane.

Now it might be true that Mr. Alpizar never said it but McAlhany does his eyewitness account no good by his other testimony:

"Law enforcement officers surrounded the plane after the shooting. Inside, McAlhany said passengers were ordered to crouch under their seats. He said that when he tried to pop up for a look, a flight attendant ordered him to get back down." [...]

"They put a gun to the back of my head and said, `Put your hands on the seat,'" he said. "That was more scary than anything else."
Fortunately, he does show an inkling of awareness for his blindfold as elsewhere he was reported to have said, "I don't think they really had to shoot him, but I hope he didn't holler something stupid." But I am left wondering whether McAlhany doesn't hear so well, or has trained himself to ignore things he is told and things other people say. I don't know what to call that blindfold but I do have words for the blindfolds worn by outsiders "experts."

The most frivolous is the blindfold of stupidity caused by specialized knowledge: "The man was clearly intent on committing "suicide by cop,'" said Scot Phelps, associate professor of emergency and disaster management at the Metropolitan College of New York." Mr. Alpizar may have acted in much the same way as those with such intent but, unless Phelps is privy to the last utterances of Mr. Alpizar or an admission by his wife to that effect, he is only guessing. If I am correct, I can, with my blindfold on, suggest Mr. Phelps ought to practice in his professional commenting what I hope he teaches in his classroom: "Judge, don't jump. Or at least have a better command of English.

But the best, or worst, blindfold, in my opinion, is the cautionary admonishment the National Alliance on Mental Illness in their call "on the Air Marshal Service and other law enforcement agencies to train officers if they don't already in responding to people with severe mental illness," without also suggesting those, or their attached parties, who could get caught up on the wrong end of such situation, should do a lot more to make security officials aware of the potential for a problem. The path to a safer and more secure condition such as happened on that American Airlines plane is more precautionary notification and clarification of conditions by those who know, before the situation occurs, not a longer list of potential factors and considerations to be processed by those who don't know and have to do the processing during emergency conditions. They should want people to get home safe by whatever means and to have everyone contribute to the successful achievement of that.

I sincerely hope that news organizations remove their blindfolds before they finish routing this story to their usual, preferred "gotcha" destination. I fear it is too late for AP; habits are hard to break. But there is always hope.

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