Five shots rang out in the name of homeland security and suddenly a nervous, Costa Rica-born U.S. citizen lay dead on a jetway at Miami International Airport - tragic collateral damage in a war that seems less rational with each passing day.

A Department of Homeland Security spokesman later tried to fob off last week's shooting by two air marshals of 44-year-old Rigoberto Alpizar, who was unarmed and suffered from bipolar disorder, as a "textbook response" to the threat of terrorism. If that's true, God help us all. It looked more like a flailing, messy overreaction to nothing much and, at the same time, a signal to the American public that, when real terrorists don't present themselves, we're more than willing to wage war on ourselves.

Americans - certainly Americans of color - may well have more to fear from domestic security forces than al-Qaida.

The official story of the shooting is simple and short: The marshals approached Alpizar when he began acting strangely. He had a backpack strapped to his chest and shouted that he had a bomb. When they ordered him to drop to the floor, he walked toward them menacingly and reached into the backpack. The marshals, making a split-second decision, opened fire. While they later discovered that he was unarmed, his erratic behavior was so suspicious no one could second-guess the decision to shoot. (And his wife's screams that he was simply off his medication could easily have been a ploy to distract the marshals.)

After all, "If he did have a bomb and it went off," one aviation expert told the Christian Science Monitor, "everybody would be wondering why they didn't do their job."

Can't argue with that. This is the logic of the war on terror, as construed and waged by the Bush administration, and we're all hostage to it. It's why we invaded Iraq: They might harm us. A death here, a shattered country there - "horrible," of course. But think how much worse it could have been.

It's "faith-based" thinking at its most out of control: The sky's the limit on our imagined peril, so, of course, we can never be secure, but if we keep firing at everything that jumps from the shadows, surely one of these days there will be nothing left to fear. Indeed, Fox News commentator Gary B. Smith, divining in Alpizar's death the message that "the airlines and the U.S. are not going to settle for anything that even resembles a terrorist attack," predicted a 25 percent jump in American Airlines stock.

But even cursory reporting begins to unravel the official version of this shooting. For one thing, the passengers on the flight do not corroborate the air marshals' story that Alpizar claimed he had a bomb.

"The first time I heard the word 'bomb' was when I was interviewed by the FBI," John McAlhany told the Associated Press. "They kept asking if I heard him say the B-word. And I said, 'What is the B-word?' And they were like, 'Bomb.' I said no. They said, 'Are you sure?' And I am."

For another thing, Alpizar was running off the plane. He'd had a panic attack. He was off his meds. Yes, he was acting oddly, but the mission of the Federal Air Marshal Service program is to protect the cockpit. Any disturbance that is not a threat to it is not in the marshals' purview to address. The fact that Alpizar was exiting the plane casts doubt on the immediacy of the threat the marshals perceived, requiring a split-second decision to shoot.

Alpizar's brother, Carlos, later told The Orlando Sentinel, "I can't conceive that the marshals wouldn't be able to overpower an unarmed, single man, especially knowing he had already cleared every security check."

Also left out of the official version of the shooting is the chaos on the airplane afterwards, when other federal officers stormed aboard with their guns drawn. "I was on the phone with my brother," passenger McAlhany said. "Somebody came down the aisle and put a shotgun to the back of my head and said, 'Put your hands on the seat in front of you.' I got my cell phone karate-chopped out of my hand."

The passengers off-loaded holding their hands behind their heads, eerily resembling detainees disembarking at Guantanamo. Right, Fox. How could American Airlines stock fail to rise after this clean, smooth defense of freedom?

What matters most, of course, is that a gentle, beloved man is dead. He and his wife had been on the last leg of a flight from Quito, Ecuador, back to their home in suburban Orlando. Ironically, they'd been doing missionary work in Ecuador - distributing eyeglasses to the poor.

I for one am unable to mourn Rigoberto Alpizar without anger, not at the two marshals, but at a homeland security apparatus on a hair-trigger of mistrust toward the very public it serves, and at a war on terror that is hell-bent on spreading what it purports to be eradicating.

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at © 2005 Tribune Media Services, Inc.