On Dec. 7, Rigoberto Alpizar died at the hands of federal sky marshals on a jetway in Miami. Remember? He had behaved oddly while exiting the airplane. He may have uttered the unutterable, saying he had a bomb. He paid with his life.
Only the grace of hindsight revealed that Alpizar was mentally ill, that lack of medication and the stress of travel had conspired to render him confused, eccentric, perhaps paranoid – a potentially lethal mix in a culture that reinforces the temptation to shoot first and ask questions later.
How quickly this all passed from public consciousness. I was reminded of the tragedy by a patient who is now doing well, but who had not long ago descended into his own psychosis, and in that confused and terrifying state had faced his own moment of truth with the law.
The Maine State Police had subdued him with nonlethal means, but he recognized in the tragedy of Alpizar that his fate might have been horribly different.
Perhaps Alpizar disappeared so quickly from the public eye because his story too painfully highlights a national tragedy: We are frightened and divided – beset by fears of terrorists, of evil-doers, of people who do not share our beliefs and values, of people who look and act different.
We seek comfort, circle the wagons if you will, in the company of those who are like us, who do not set off the warning bells of oddness or deviance. At our worst, we find comfort in making scapegoats of those who frighten us with their difference. We find solace in the fiction that ours is the better country, the better God.
Much of our political discourse reinforces the drift toward fear and division. And while we can usually count on religion to lift us up and appeal to our better nature, much of the church has fallen into the broader cultural morass.
The Protestant Right has hardened its heart against those who fail to toe the doctrinal line. The Vatican has found its beté noire in homosexuality. The excesses committed in the names of Judaism and Islam in the Middle East and elsewhere are nothing less than horrific.
Tragically, the senseless death of Alpizar in the airport jetway becomes part of our cultural fabric of fear and loathing. In the story of his death there are no winners. His family’s pain will endure. The guilt of the marshals who took an innocent life is likely to haunt them forever. And our country slips yet farther away from the moral high ground.
As we look toward celebrating the birth of Martin Luther King this coming weekend, it seems good to remember that he dreamed of a very different America – one inspired, if not by love, then at least by justice.
He dreamed of politicians motivated more by doing good than by doing well. He dreamed of churches that fostered our better angels and promoted inclusion and tolerance. He dared dream of a world where difference might be embraced as a source of riches and where we no longer worship the golden calf of money and power.
Events on the jetway in Miami seem a universe away from King’s dream. Did it die with him? Against the odds, it seems that there are still people of conscience who have not succumbed to the drumroll of fear. Can they rise up to lead us, or in doing so do they risk the martyrdom of King and others who have challenged the forces of fear and division?
What about the appropriateness of fear? After all, the world can be a dangerous place, and fear may be seen as part of our adaptive hard-wiring, every bit as much as fear’s reciprocal emotions: compassion and trust.
In fact, fear may confer an advantage in the race for survival of the fittest. Had the Rev. King been more fearful and less compassionate, he might be among us still. And he might never have dared the Montgomery bus boycott or the March on Washington.
In choosing compassion over fear and hatred, King risked all. Do we and our leaders dare follow him?