A Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 similar to the one that disappeared with 239 people on board. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Sometimes, though not very often, planes crash. But in a post-9/11 world, that story isn’t quite interesting enough. We can't just report that Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 crashed and we don’t know where or why yet; instead, we have to be able to relay the plot of exactly what happened, using whatever scraps of information we can find.
Sprawling news organizations struggle to feed 24-hour news channels and constantly updated blogs with the meager rations available—each morsel is sniffed and inspected and toyed with hour after hour until every last drop of flavor has been extracted. And when the facts run out, you can always rely on the efforts of experts cum storytellers, who will be happy to spin yarns from the thinnest and most fragile of threads in exchange for a bit of exposure.
The Boeing 777 is the nearest thing to real magic that most of us will experience in our lifetimes. It's made of 3 million parts from 500 suppliers; it works in perfect harmony for millions upon millions of miles while maintaining a safety record any car manufacturer would kill for. To call it a miracle would be an insult to the skill and effort of the thousands of engineers responsible for the design and construction of the planes, but each time one of these contraptions makes a successful flight, it should be hailed as an extraordinary achievement.
It’s a testament to how safe modern planes are—and how skewed our sense of risk is—that a single crash has generated more headlines than the tens of thousands of people who die of car accidents in the US every year. The loss of Flight MH370 is undoubtedly a tragedy and an utterly horrible thing for the passengers and their families to go through. But how many lives are lost and how many families are affected each day by accidents involving cars, motorbikes, and bicycles?
That’s not the only thing the press have failed to comprehend in its race to build narratives and attract readers. Probably the most damaging misunderstanding has concerned the stolen passport story, which has been used in the last three days to build an absurd "terrorism" narrative around the disaster on the basis of basically zero evidence whatsoever.
In case you haven't heard, two passports used on the flight were discovered to have been lost or stolen, suggesting the passengers were travelling under false IDs. That, along with the large Muslim population in the region, was enough to prompt theories about the disappearance being related to terrorism. The Telegraph wrote a headline about a "terror fear"—the ultimate combination of fear and terror—over "mystery passengers."
Even as Interpol confirmed that two passports used on the flight matched records in its Stolen and Lost Travel Documents database, it also noted that up to 40 million IDs could be in circulation, and that checks in most countries were so lax that “passengers were able to board planes more than a billion times without having their passports screened against Interpol's databases.”
It turns out that bogus passports are surprisingly common, but even if they weren’t, do terrorists generally even use stolen passports? The 9/11 hijackers didn’t.
Yet none of that stopped the media from clinging doggedly to their narrative. By Tuesday, "air security expert" Philip Baum, appearing in the Daily Mail, had pieced together—albeit hypothetically—a scheme that had the East Turkestan Islamic Movement at the heart of a militant plot to down the aircraft. “Could it be that ETIM, having failed to gain international publicity through its domestic attacks, has decided to go international?” Baum wrote. If so, they’re keeping pretty fucking quiet about it.
One of the more ludicrous theories was the accusation, promoted by the Mail, that 20 employees from the semiconductor firm Freescale lost on the flight were involved in some kind of electronic warfare experiment. “This could include ‘cloaking’ technology that uses a hexagonal array of glasslike panels to bend light around an object, such as a plane, according to a report in Beforeitsnews.com,” the paper speculated, neglecting to mention that other stories on Beforeitsnews.com include gems like “Alien Technology Discovered in Man’s Tooth?!”
At the farthest end of the making-shit-up spectrum sits Mike “Health Ranger” Adams, the author of Natural News—a site that specializes in peddling bullshit quackery to anyone dumb enough to take the link bait plastered up on Facebook. Slate’s Brian Palmer observed recently that Adams has become adept at exploiting the social network, with “an uncanny ability to move sophisticated readers from harmless dietary balderdash to medical quackery to anti-government zealotry.” Natural News has its own take on Facebook: “Worse than meth: Facebook is altering your mind and turning you into a slave.” Natural News posts on Facebook probably won’t enslave you, but they may make you an idiot.
Adams has his own theory about Flight 370, if you can call six brain farts and a non sequitur a "theory." As with most conspiracy theories, it takes a series of barely connected, context-deprived "facts"—drawn largely from the observer’s own ignorance—and adds a strong dose of paranoid accusations, but fails to draw any sort of cohesive framework together to hang a plausible story on.
To the pseudo-religious mind of the conspiracy theorist, the failure to find the black box or floating debris after four days isn’t simply a sign of how difficult it is to find a tiny box in a vast ocean (the flight recorder on Air France flight 447 took two years to locate), but evidence of dark, mysterious forces at work.
“If we never find the debris, it means some entirely new, mysterious and powerful force is at work on our planet, which can pluck airplanes out of the sky without leaving behind even a shred of evidence,” Adams postulated. “If there does exist a weapon with such capabilities, whoever controls it already has the ability to dominate all of Earth's nations with a fearsome military weapon of unimaginable power."
It’s easy to mock internet conspiracy theorists, but what they’re doing isn’t that far removed from the psychology at play in the mainstream media. They’re all filling the vacuum with their own stories; it’s just that some restrict their stories to slightly more plausible territory. There’s just as little evidence for a terrorist attack as there is for a missile strike, and both stories have been built around the idea of a monster under a bed. For conspiracy theorists, it’s the US government or the New World Order; for the Daily Mail, it’s Muslim extremists with scary-sounding names.
The whole scenario sounds almost religious, and perhaps, in a way, it is. It all seems to come back to a deep-seated need for somebody—some unseen hand—to be in control of events. As David Aaronovitch pointed out in his book on conspiracy theories, Voodoo Histories, the alternative is, in many ways, more frightening: The universe doesn’t really care whether we live or die, it has no respect for the narratives we build around our lives, and death can simply just happen, randomly and unplanned.
The irony is that buried in this avalanche of speculation there are some really interesting stories that have been largely ignored. How is it, for example, that for all the supposed increases in airline security in the wake of 9/11, checkpoints at airports are so bad that people with stolen passports can apparently travel at will? And why is it that in an era of high-speed 4G broadband, when 40-year-old technology can transmit data back from beyond the edge of the solar system, we still have to send ships and divers to retrieve data from a plane, rather than simply transmitting it in real time?
To me, these questions—and others—are far more interesting than invisible Muslim militant groups or government laser beams.
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