Guest Column: ‘The friendly skies’ not so friendly to some

“Daddy, why did they make the man’s wife get back on the plane and sit with her hands on her head?”

About six months ago, a close friend was boarding a plane and discussing with his companion the dance concert they’d seen in Milwaukee the evening before. He happens to be a brown-skinned musician and tends to travel with strange-shaped baggage with wooden, skin and metal parts that need explaining.

So far, so good. He’s become accustomed to receiving strange looks, comments and more than a stern once-over from the former Motel 6 night managers turned National Safety Administration officials. Next thing he knew, he was being escorted to a private airport location and spent the hour being questioned by the same federal marshals who have been so in the news lately. No reasons, just a firm arm hold and a “come with us.”

It appears my friend had mentioned in conversation that one of the dancers of the previous evening had a style that was “explosive.” Being overheard and reported, he was detained, interrogated and the plane was delayed until he was verified as a non-risk.

If you knew him, you’d laugh. But that day, nobody was laughing because anyone who looks marginally deeper in the media than People magazine knows that lots of innocent folks, even American citizens, have been detained without charges, and others have disappeared since 9/11 for interrogation in countries that do not pretend to decry torture. No reasons, no charges, no problem.

Yesterday, as I listened to the musical underscore of the fallen hero John Lennon, the media and the authorities struggled to get their stories straight about the Miami shooting of Rigoberto Alpizar. One passenger, a construction worker seated near Alpizar, John McAlhany, dared to say that the “B” (bomb) word was never spoken by Alpizar. But by day’s end, most stories were starting to agree that anyone who says the “B” word should be shot, and that Alpizar must have said the “B” word since he’d been shot. Airtight circular logic, so close to the crystalline synthesis of Condi Rice that it’s noteworthy. Americans do not condone torture, so therefore it doesn’t happen.

But who knows what really happened in that jetway? Certainly a sacrifice of another little piece of our freedom. My guess is that we’ll hear less and less from McAlany as the feds get closer to his tax returns, or figure out who he’s hired on a construction site. Not because of any weakness on McAlany’s part. It’s just that that’s how the authorities play these days. John McAlany’s a hero to me, having spoken up at great risk for the innocent, dead, mentally challenged man. The media will surely tire of the wrongful death angle as holidays draw nearer, and we thank God for our soldiers and first responders. What I can’t believe is that nobody is saying that what happened is a mistake. Instead of recalibrating our hair triggers, we are rapidly and actively justifying the killing of an innocent man.

At least when the Southwest jet rolled onto Cicero Avenue and killed an innocent child, someone in a position of authority for the airline had the decency to say it was a mistake. Yet, the ranks of authority circle in solidarity around the armed guards. This makes it possible for our nation to move toward a single opinion about a reprehensible action. One which does not admit failure in officials like armed guards, soldiers and presidents, failure in systems like Congress and Homeland Security, and failures in governments like ours. The margins of intolerance move inward in the home of the brave.

We live in a land deeply involved in a love affair with its guns. Live by the gun, die by the gun. My gun’s bigger than yours. We also value white over brown, rich over poor. Ten thousand armed marshals on our planes daily. Mistakes are bound to happen. The odds are shifting for brown and poor. Greater if you fly. Greater if you have an anxiety episode or use the “B” word or the “E” word or the “X Y Z” word in conversation. Or if you stand when they say sit. If you say peace when they say war. So it is that Rigoberto Alpizar dies. Let us have a moment’s speculation, perhaps an AOL poll, asking whether it is more reassuring or less reassuring to the American public that this man’s destiny was to be executed for his sins.

David Stocker is a parent, musician and a teacher in the Midwest. He is a performing member of the medicine band OneDrum. He can be contacted at

From the Dec. 28, 2005-Jan. 3, 2006, issue

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