Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Hair Trigger Nation

Published on Monday, December 12, 2005
by James Carroll
 

Is it wrong to second-guess the split-second decision an air marshal made last week in shooting to death a disturbed, but apparently harmless man on an airplane in Miami?

or an instant, according to some accounts, it looked like the man had a bomb. On the same day, a man rushed onto a bus into Baghdad, detonated himself, and killed 30 people. Miami may not think of itself as a war zone, but air marshals are primed to act as if it is -- together with every other US city. When something unexpected happens, it will be taken as a threat. Every threat will be met with swift and overwhelming force. Better safe than sorry. Welcome to the new America.

But when the perceived suicide bomber, say, turns out to have been an innocent man who had only failed to take his medication, being safe and sorry amount to the same thing. Get used to it. Curb your enthusiasm, especially in airport security lines.

Odd behavior used to be only that, but now it can get you in deep trouble. When I heard the news of the man shot dead in Miami, it struck me with rare clarity that we all live in a war zone now. In the flash of anyone's mistake -- yours or theirs -- our armed protectors can turn into our accidental killers. If we can't second-guess the decisions they make when faced with the unexpected, can we reflect on the process by which we all came to be here?

When I was very young, my father was an FBI agent. I was obsessed with the knowledge that he carried a gun, but he protected me and my brothers from its implications by never showing it to us. I saw his weapon only once, sitting in its holster on my parents' bedroom bureau. Later, I remember a disturbing conversation in which Dad told me that an FBI agent was trained only to shoot to kill. Thinking of Hopalong Cassidy, I protested that an agent should first aim at the bad guy's gun-hand, or, if necessary, at his arm or leg. ''Why not shoot to disable?" was the way my question was put by a critic of the air marshals last week.

My father told me that because an FBI agent understood that his weapon was only to be used as deadly force, and then only in the extreme circumstance of protecting his own life or the lives of others, the gun would hardly ever come out of its holster. Don't draw a firearm merely to threaten, or imagining that the perpetrator can be ''winged." Once a weapon is deployed, it has moved most of the way to being used.

The decision that counts is not made in the split-second of a rushed confrontation, but weeks and months earlier, on the practice range and in training sessions. FBI agents, my father was telling me, ask questions first, and shoot later. The surest course to mistaken violence is not so much in the instantaneous decision made once the weapon is drawn, but in the premature drawing of it.

I have no way of measuring what my father told me against what was actual at the time, and I know nothing about contemporary FBI attitudes. But in the American war zone today, a public mood that is so attuned to threats assumes the ready deployment of deadly force -- sooner rather than later. It is not only that weapons are so readily at hand, but also that the guns have been put on hair trigger.

In my youth, it was only in strife-torn foreign places that one could imagine armed soldiers patrolling civilian areas; I think of an intimidating visit to Paris during the Algerian war in the late 1950s, when sullen legionnaires flaunted their machine guns in the streets. Now combat-ready soldiers pace our airports. The extreme circumstance that my father described has become the normal condition of ordinary life. Of course the guns are drawn.

Is this a prudent response to changed conditions in the age of terror? The possibility of miscreant violence is real, and the proactive savvy of law enforcement is essential. But is there, perhaps, a disproportion between what actually threatens and the licensed jitters of our armed patrol? Or is this only the domestic equivalent of the nation's hair-trigger foreign policy? Did we think we could be so quick to draw and shoot, even without aiming, in places far away without turning ourselves into targets?

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

© 2005 Boston Globe

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