Jan 152006

All but forgotten already is the December 7th death, at the hands of federal sky marshals on a jetway in Miami, of Rigoberto Alpizar. It appears he may have behaved oddly while exiting the plane. He might even have uttered the unutterable, saying he had a bomb. Only with the grace of hindsight did we learn 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.

Why has this story dropped so quickly for the public dialog? Perhaps because Alpizar’s story all 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.

As Dr. George McNeil writes: “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.”

The political discourse in America reinforces this drift toward fear and division. The church no longer appeals to our better nature, but has fallen into the greater cultural morass. The Protestant Right hardens its heart against those who don’t toe the doctrinal line. The Vatican has found its scapegoat and diversion in homosexuality. The excesses committed in the names of Judaism and Islam in the Middle East and elsewhere are nothing less than horrific.

In the story of Alpizar’s death on the airport jetway there is no “upside.” His family suffers the pain of his loss. The air marshals will most likely feel guilt for the rest of their lives. And the U.S. slips farther away from the moral high ground as Alpizar’s death becomes part of our culture of fear and loathing.

On this weekend, when we celebrate the birth and life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it would be well to remember that King dreamed of something very different for America. King dreamed of an America inspired, if not by love, then at least by justice.

His dream was of politicians motivated more to do good than to do well. King’s dream included a church that fostered our better angels and promoted inclusion and tolerance. He dared to dream of a world where difference was embraced as a source of riches, and the golden calf of money and power were not the most important thing.

I realize the events on that jetway in Miami seem a long way from King’s dream. It makes me wonder if King’s dream died with him, but it seems that there are still people of conscience who have not succumbed to the drum roll of fear. Can these people…can we… rise up to lead, or in doing so do we risk the martyrdom of King and others who have challenged the forces of fear and division?

Is fear appropriate? The world can be a dangerous place. Some say fear is hard-wired, and may confer an advantage in the race for the survival of the fittest. Had the Rev. King been more fearful and less compassionate, he might be among us still. But then 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’ today dare follow him? Do we still possess fear’s reciprocal emotions: compassion and trust?

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