The Mystery of MH370 Goes to the Heart of Our Fears
The satirical website the Onion said it best on Thursday. The investigation into the fate of flight MH370 had been widened, it declared, "to encompass not only the possibilities of mechanical failure, pilot error, terrorist activity or a botched hijacking, but also the overarching scope of space, time and humankind's place in the universe".
Is it right to joke at all about what may very well turn out to be a mass tragedy? Perhaps a combination of gallows humour and conspiracy theories are our instinctive response to the confusion surrounding an incident like this. But an incident like what? Experts on all sides repeat the word "unprecedented" and it is precisely this sense of mystery that keeps us glued to the 24-hour news, awaiting the next instalment. I'd bet there isn't a thriller writer in the world who isn't guiltily wishing they'd dreamed up a scenario like this.
We thought we lived in a world so webbed around with digital surveillance and electronic footprints that it was all but impossible for an individual to vanish comprehensively, much less an international airliner. The story of MH370's disappearance has had all the hallmarks of a thriller over the past week: the red herrings, the misinformation, the suspicious passengers, the wider political ramifications. And yet, at the heart of all the theories and counterclaims, remains this black hole: the plane is still missing.
As a chronic aerophobic, I've taken a number of courses over the years designed to help people overcome their fear, most of them based on the idea that knowledge is power. Commercial pilots and aviation engineers with 30-plus years' experience stand in front of 100 quaking phobics and patiently explain why your worst nightmares just couldn't happen in modern aviation.
The last time I attended one of these, a year ago, people asked about systems failures, security breaches, loss of power, fires, depressurisation, midair collisions, bird strikes, pilot training, landing-gear failure (we phobics have vivid imaginations). Our pilots, with thousands of hours of flying and training between them, reassured us on every point. Aviation technology, both on the ground and in the aircraft, is so sophisticated now that it's almost impossible for anything untoward to occur without a series of back-up systems springing into action.
There is no arguing with the statistics: flying is safer now than it has ever been. And yet it seems an entire plane can be made to vanish from the skies, just by flicking a switch to cut off communications. None of us thought to ask about that.
Aeroplanes exert a unique hold over our imagination. That's why so many disaster movies begin with an air crash or are set in a stricken plane. It's why terrorists target them – for maximum impact. Perhaps it's the combination of power and audacity they represent: a sort of Icarus complex, the niggling fear that we're not really supposed to do this and must be punished for it.
In the absence of facts, our obsession with the story feeds on uncertainty and that's what the Onion was satirising. That an object the size of a 777, equipped with every modern instrument of navigation and communication, can simply disappear without trace is a mystery that takes us right back to the legends about the Bermuda Triangle.