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Dangers of association

December 8, 2005

I read a strange series of paragraphs in this morning’s New York Times in the midst of coverage of the shooting of Rigoberto Alpizar at the Miami International Airport by federal air marshals. The man claimed to have a bomb, and “ran” from the aircraft (as the NYT reports it) or simply wouldn’t stop walking away (as I heard on NPR tonight). There was no bomb, and there are reports that Alpizar’s wife, who was traveling with him, informed the marshals that her husband was bi-polar, off his medication, and not a serious threat. But anyway, here are the paragraphs, quoted from the NYT story:

At a news conference, James Bauer, the special agent in charge of federal air marshals in Miami, said other federal air marshals had been deployed at airports throughout the country “in a surveillance mode to see if in fact other events are unfolding back to this isolated event.”

But he added, there was no sign of any problem. “There is no reason to believe right now that there is any nexus to terrorism,” he said, “or indeed that any other events are associated with this one.”

Mr. Bauer defended the decision to shoot Mr. Alpizar, saying the air marshals were following protocol and had been trained to shoot when they perceived a serious threat.

“All of that will be parsed out,” he said, refusing to comment further.

The language used by Bauer at this news conference may be common parlance among intelligence and security folk, but it struck me as strange. Almost philosophical. Events “folding back” to an isolated event? And then: the threat of associated events, the reassurance that there is “no reason to believe…that any other events are associated with this one.” And then: parse?

Parse often simply means “to understand” or “to comprehend” but that’s not how Bauer seems to be using it here. He’s talking about events, the perceived relationship between events, and the meaning that this can have for “us” as air travelers, Americans, whoever. So I prefer the more linguistically-oriented definition in this case: to “analyze syntactically by assigning a constituent structure.”

In a sense then, Mr. Bauer and others are literally “reading” the situation, trying to locate syntactical relationships between the “parts” (events) that make up this particular text. I think what bothers me about this is what bothers be about linguistics, the propensity to find just what you’re looking for by assigning a constituent structure. You can miss a lot in such a reading, by pushing the parts or their relationship(s) into conventional categories or meanings.

This seems, at least at the moment, to be what happened to the man in Miami, who was determined to be one way, to mean one thing (terrorist, bomber) over shouted protests that in fact he was another way, meant something entirely different (bi-polar, harmless), and was consequently shot by air marshals who “were following protocol and had been trained to shoot when they perceived a serious threat.” Parsed, and killed. And this is most likely what gives me an uneasy feeling about Bauer’s perspective on the nature of events and their relationships, that it would simply be a broadening of this mis-reading, meanings “folding back” into a pre-determined structure, decided in advance, separated into more easily processed components.

One Comment
  1. December 9, 2005 1:34 AM

    This doesn’t really speak to your post, but there are now more detailed accounts of the incident beginning to come out.

    Something doesn’t seem to add up between the Marshal Service statement: “Alpizar had run up and down the plane’s aisle yelling, ‘I have a bomb in my bag.'” vs. eyewitness accounts: “Only one passenger recalled Alpizar saying, ‘I’ve got to get off, I’ve got to get off[.]'”

    The marshals say Alpizar announced he was carrying a bomb before being killed.

    However, no other witness has publicly concurred with that account. Only one passenger recalled Alpizar saying, “I’ve got to get off, I’ve got to get off,” CNN’s Kathleen Koch reported.

    No explosives were found onboard the aircraft. It was the first time a federal air marshal fired a weapon at someone since the program was bolstered after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

    Dave Adams, a spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service, said Alpizar had run up and down the plane’s aisle yelling, “I have a bomb in my bag.”

    It also doesn’t seem like the man’s wife was exactly yelling to the marshalls about his condition (I doubt she fully realized what was happening)

    After Alpizar ran off the plane, his wife pursued him part of the way down the aisle, then returned to her seat saying her husband was sick and she needed to get his bags, Beshears said.

    “After she passed back toward her seat … a number of shots rang out — at least five, up to six, shots rang out[.]”

    White House backs air marshals’ actions

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