Thursday, December 08, 2005

Federal Air Marshals open fire

Just in case you haven't been anywhere near a news site all day, on Wednesday two Federal Air Marshals (FAMs) shot and killed a man who got off of an airplane almost immediately after boarding, apparently shouting that he had a bomb in his backpack, or something to that general effect. The story from Homeland Security is simple and consistent: even though the man's wife was shouting that her husband had not taken his meds and to please not hurt him, he refused their orders to stop and put down his backpack. He had made threats against the air marshals after they identified themselves, and he was reaching into his backpack. The Republicans lost no time jumping to the marshals' defense, saying that they reacted correctly by treating as real a threat from which the perpetrator refused to back down.

I obviously don't know all the facts of the case, but so far I have not heard anything to suggest to me that the Republicans defending the air marshals are wrong.

If in fact the man was claiming to have a bomb and refusing to put it down, then he had to be taken down. In such a situation, attempting to disable the assailant with non-lethal force might be precisely the wrong approach, because he might still be able to set off his explosive device. The fact that he didn't actually have a bomb is immaterial, because there was no way the marshals could know that.

Okay, the man's wife was apparently yelling something to the effect of, "He hasn't taken his meds!" but even if we take it as fact that the man is off his meds, that doesn't necessarily mean that he's lying about having a bomb.

I had a recent frightening run-in with police here in San Francisco. I was walking along through a rough-ish neighborhood fairly late on a weeknight when suddenly an SFPD patrol car zoomed just past me and screeched to a halt, pulling part way into the driveway directly in front of me. I hadn't done anything, but there was no one else on the sidewalk, so I paused and kept my hands in plain sight until one of the officers said, "Sir, we're not after you," as she boarded the Muni bus that they had just overtaken. The point is, though, you don't tease the people with guns. If you're not up to that level of self-control, for whatever reason, then you don't go to the airport.

I also remember walking into the airport in Athens, Greece, 16 years ago, and seeing an armored personnel carrier literally parked inside the terminal, with guards holding automatic weapons patrolling the airport grounds. Yes, many years before Nine Eleven Changed Everything, there were airports with serious security precautions.

Of course, if it can be demonstrated that the man's behavior was objectively less threatening, then the marshals' resort to deadly force may not have been justified after all. The marshals should also review their threat assessment and mitigation protocols in the hopes of finding a way to resolve future incidents without gunfire.

That said, there are many things in America today that threaten my sense of security far more than the killing of a passenger in the Miami airport.