In the Absence of Satisfying Facts—or Any Facts at All

On January 29, this was the lead headline on the NBC Nightly News newsfeed: “Malaysia Airlines MH370 Declared an ‘Accident,’ Search for Survivors Ends.”

On the surface, this headline is absurd in at least two very obvious ways.

First, how can the loss of the plane be declared an “accident” when no one has located a single piece of the wreckage and the area of the Indian Ocean that is now being searched—that is now being “mapped”—with very sophisticated radar equipment is only a best guess at where the plane ultimately went down? Given that the plane disappeared ten months ago, the word “accident” has no meaning at all unless it confirms that the loss of the plane was caused by something other than a criminal act or an act of terrorism. If it simply means that the plane crashed, then it was clear that this was an “accident” about two or three days after the plane disappeared.

Second, I think that the search for survivors ended well before anyone even started to search the area of the Indian Ocean into which the plane is now thought to have come down. The search had focused on the Gulf of Siam and then on the Indian Ocean just west of Malaysia before it shifted much farther south to the part of the Indian Ocean that lies southwest of Australia. No one was likely to survive anywhere in the ocean for more than a week or two, especially since anyone who survived would almost surely have been debilitated from injuries suffered in the crash. Moreover, the area of the Indian Ocean that is now being searched is not simply very remote. There is an almost complete absence of any islands on which any survivors might have found refuge. And the seas in that region are very cold and very rough, being regularly subject to strong storms. So, no one clinging to a piece of floating wreckage was likely to remain on it for very long and anyone bobbing in a lifejacket was going to expire sooner rather than later from hypothermia.

The article does, of course, make clear that this formal announcement was necessary in order for the families of the lost passengers and crew to begin seeking compensation for their losses. But given the often absurd way in which the response to this incident has been (mis)managed, this announcement seems to punctuate all of the preceding absurdity with what seems to be a long overdue official acknowledgement of what has been very, very obvious for a very, very long time.

In an area of the Pacific Ocean off the opposite corner of Australia from where the Malaysian airliner is now presumed to have gone down, Amelia Earhart disappeared in July 1937—more than 75 years ago, when aviation was in its infancy, when radar was a largely untested and at best very limited invention, and when satellite-enabled communications were the stuff of futuristic fiction. No trace of either Earhart or her plane has ever been found, though “evidence” that suggests that the mystery is on the verge of being solved continues to “surface” with astonishing regularity. Her disappearance, like the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby, was one of the first events to inspire long-lived, media-disseminated conspiracy theories—a sort of cultural forerunner of the conspiracy theories that have long surrounded the Kennedy assassination.

But, we live in an era in which a satellite can follow a man walking across the arid ground of a very remote corner of Afghanistan with such clarity that he can be identified as Osama Bin Laden. So, it is nothing short of astonishing that a large airliner carrying 239 passengers can disappear much as Earhart’s much, much smaller plane disappeared more than 75 years ago.

In fact, the Malaysian airliner’s disappearance is arguably a much bigger mystery because no one has any idea what happened to take the plane so dramatically off course and with almost all of the tracking mechanisms disabled. At least in Earhart’s case, it was fairly obvious, almost from the beginning, that her insufficient training on the radio equipment on her plane had simply caused her to fly off course until the plane simply ran out of fuel.

So this story will be with us a long time, and if any Americans of any note had been on board, it would have the same profoundly compelling fascination for us as it has had for the people of Southeast and East Asia: that is, CNN would still be pretending that it was the only news story of note and that some revelation about the airliner’s disappearance might be imminent.

These kinds of stories transcend all demographic categories—in part because they appeal to some archetypal awareness of the fundamentally arbitrary nature of existence, but also because unlike issues on which we wish that we could transcend socio-economic, political, and cultural categories, these events have an air of unreality to them that gives them a very elastic appeal. Like the Kennedy assassination has demonstrated most pointedly, they simultaneously inspire intense, cutting-edge scholarly investigation and fervent, lunatic-fringe speculation.

About fifteen years ago, I was using the bound periodicals in our public library. They were stored in the basement and had to be requested in batches at the reference desk. I was waiting behind several other library patrons to give my list of bound volumes to the reference librarian. The guy immediately in front of me was dressed in biker’s leathers and had tattoos down the entire length of both arms and from one ear lobe to another across the back of his neck. There were some swastikas in among the devil’s heads, snakes, and hearts wrapped in barbed wire. But, when his turn came, he said in a surprisingly unobtrusive voice, “I have always been fascinated by Amelia Earhart. Can you recommend several good biographies or books on the theories surrounding her disappearance?” If I had heard him talking on the other side of a wall, I might have assumed that he was someone who looked quite different—even someone who looked like a professor.


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