Friday, December 09, 2005

Our less valuable citizens

My stomach has been knotty for the past few days over the air marshal shooting of Rigoberto Alpizar. Alpizar was shot by air marshals who claim that he said he was carrying a bomb. Right behind him was his wife, shouting that he was bipolar and hadn't taken his medication. All the officials quoted thus far back the air marshals 100%, saying that they executed (sick pun intended) exactly as they are trained to do.

Officials have confirmed that Alpizar was bipolar. According to a NYTimes article, Miami Dade police say that interviews with over 100 passengers and crew confirm that Alpizar refused to surrender. None of the articles I've read, however, have confirmation from any passenger regarding any bomb threat. Did the captain of the flight did hear a bomb threat? Again, a Times quote: "But Mark Raynor, an American Airlines pilot and local union official in Miami, said an account he heard from the plane's captain had supported law enforcement accounts of the shooting."

And here's another quote from Reuters:

Security experts said even if it turned out that the man was mentally ill, the air marshals had acted exactly as they have been trained to in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. "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. "That's exactly what you want an air marshal to do, that's what they're trained to do," Phelps said.

What an irresponsible statement, to presume Phelps knew Alpizar's intent, given how little we know about him. And what an irresponsible statement, given what we do know about bipolarity. Gotta say that I'm not thrilled with the notion that our air marshals are trained to shoot to kill, regardless of a person's mental status.

My husband attitude was one of resignation. He didn't think that much could be done to stop such a situation. And he pointed out that being bipolar (or having any other mental or neurological health issue) could easily be used as a ploy to give a terrorist just enough time to set off a bomb.

Come on, people. Aren't we smarter than this? Isn't there some system, some plan, that our government can come up with to assure the safety of our mentally ill citizens in this time of over-blown terrorist hysteria? I desperately want there to be.

I've mentioned my son before, who has Asperger's Syndrome. Mild autism. Brilliant. But terrible social skills. Poor reading of, and responding to, social situations. And any situation that involves people is a social situation. When it comes to people, he has an IQ of zero. And he panics easily and becomes reactive when frightened or mad.

Parents in the autism community worry a great deal about their children's possible interactions with the police, particularly as our kids grow to adulthood. We worry about our kids not responding to police commands in a timely fashion. (Stop! Stop!) We worry about our kids not taking in information in a panic situation and doing exactly the wrong thing. (Don't touch that bag! Drop the bag!)

I can just hear Jonathan saying, "But, Mom. I was just reaching into the bag to show them that there was no bomb." Or. "But, Mom. I was telling them that I didn't have a bomb" even though we've told him to NEVER mention the word "bomb" in an airport.

We try to train our kids to make the right decisions. All parents do. But parents of kids with special needs do more than most. Lots of parents take their kids photos to the police, introduce them around, describe their behaviors so that their autistic quirks won't be misinterpreted as aggressive or criminal behavior.

So how do I train Jonathan to travel safely on a plane? How do I eradicate his autism when he hops into air marshal territory so that he won't do something that might provoke air marshal attention--or worse?

Clearly, I have to figure out a solution, as the situation isn't going to change. Why? Two reasons. First, the Bush administration thinks the air marshals did a fine job. ""I don't think anyone wants to see it come to a situation like this," said Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman. "But these marshals appear to have acted in a way that's consistent with the extensive training that they have received. And we'll see what the investigation shows, and lessons learned from that will be applied to future training and protocol."

More importantly, though, there is no funding to do a better job of training air marshals. The Republicans apparently killed $50 million in funding for new hirees and more training. Nice touch during this era.

So, folks. Take your meds. Or keep your mentally ill or neurologically challenged loved ones out of airports. Because the air marshals are trained only to give a damn about saving our lives, not theirs.

Until tomorrow,


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