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The Mystery of MH370
What do the swirling theories about the missing jetliner say about America?


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‘There are known knowns — there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns, that is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns — there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

Here at least, Donald Rumsfeld had it right.

And, when it comes to these three categories of knowledge, America’s preference lands firmly on option two. MH370 is proving that.

We know that something untoward has happened; we just don’t know what. Terrorism or alien abduction? Ransom or insanity? Pick your theory. Or form another.

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Let’s cut to the chase: This mystery is well suited to the American appetite. Conspiracy theories have always been part of our national psyche. In fact, as I’ve argued before, conspiracy theories can actually nurture our cultural, social, and democratic health. And, as CNN’s rocketing ratings prove, we’re enjoying the MH370 uncertainty. Facing coverage of a Russian invasion, Toyota settlements, and a missing jetliner — the mystery is master.

But why to such a significant degree?

As I see it, the hyperinterest is rooted in MH370’s ultimate “known unknown”-ness.

In some sense, it flows from jetliners’ unique “known” charisma — as six-mile-high, 500-mile-an-hour cocoons of delivery. Jetliners balance humanity’s technical innovation in a wager with the Earth. We know that we need planes to travel long distances, but we also know that if a problem develops in flight — it won’t be a good day. In this dichotomy, the frost on a plane window serves as a cold metaphor; it reminds us of the vulnerability that lingers just inches away.

In the case of MH370, however, this dynamic is accentuated by the conflicting information.

Because of the many elements at hand — eyewitness reports from the Maldives, silent regional governments, stolen passports, floating debris/nothing, simulator memory deletions, etc., etc., etc. — the theorizing has been opened up to include anyone with an idea.

Imagine that the debris off Australia’s coast does turn out to be from MH370. In such a situation, public interest would immediately begin to dissipate — the tangible debris would provide a physical presence to dampen our speculation. Sure, MH370 would continue as a “known unknown” — we still wouldn’t know exactly what had occurred. But we would also know that the field of possible “unknowns” was diminished.

The distinction is critical.

At a basic level, until we have evidence of something somewhat definitive, it will remain possible, for example, to go on TV and suggest that MH370 is sitting under camouflage netting in a remote jungle. Or that it’s in the Gobi Desert, refueled, packed with explosives, and ready to crash into a major city. Or that it’s at the bottom of one of the planet’s oceans. Albeit precariously, it will remain possible to use social media to claim that MH370 is now docked in the Alpha Centauri star system and that those on board are drinking tea with three-headed aliens, Amelia Earhart, and Elvis.

Ultimately, this speaks to a broader truth. MH370’s disappearance allows us to regard the normally implausible as newly plausible. It tempts us to believe that somewhere, somehow, the truth is out there. The longer the conundrum continues, the more our analytical tendencies give way to our expanded imaginations.

Nevertheless, this is America. If a story is easy to watch and relevant to our daily lives, there’s a magnetism to that which we know we do not know.

In the end, even if subconsciously, perhaps we do not wish to truly know the unknown. Perhaps we’re happier to be able to identify truth as that which our minds have created.

Tom Rogan is a blogger based in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to The American Spectator and the Guardian.

 

 


Malaysia Airline Mystery
More than a week after it disappeared, the mystery surrounding Malaysia Airline flight MH370 continues to deepen, feeding rampant speculation on what happened. Here’s a look. Pictured, a wall in Kuala Lumpur displays prayers for the fate of those onboard.
As new information has changed and expanded the search area, crews from more than a dozen nations are combing an area of 2.24 million square nautical miles — nearly the size of the United States — for any sign of the airplane or clue as to its fate.
Malaysian government and airline officials have been criticized for offering incomplete and shifting information on the search and what radar and other data is available. Pictured, Malaysian transportation minister Hishamuddin Hussein displays maps of the search area.
Relatives of MH370's passengers have been left in limbo by the lack of information and failure to locate the aircraft during the massive search operation.
TIMELINE: Here's what we know about the sequence of events and some possible explanations. Pictured, a Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency pilot studies a map of the search area over the waters of the South China Sea.
Saturday, March 8: 12:41 a.m.: Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 takes off on a scheduled flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The Boeing 777-200ER carries 227 passengers and 12 crew.
The 2,7000-mile flight is expected to arrive at 6:30 a.m. local time in Beijing.
In the cockpit (from left): Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, a veteran pilot with more than 18,000 hours experience described as an “aviation tech geek,” and First Officer Fariq Ab Hamid, 27.
1:01 a.m. Flight MH370 reaches a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet over Taman Negara.
1:07 a.m. The jet's Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) sends an automatic signal reporting on basic flight performance.
1:19 a.m.: The last verbal check-in from Flight MH370 is received as co-pilot Hamid says: “All right, good night,” a common report when handing off a plane to the next airspace.
1:21 a.m.: The aircraft's transponder — which relays its flight number, altitude, speed, and heading to ground controllers and other aircraft — is switched off as the plane exits Malaysian airspace. (Pictured, file photo of a 777 cockpit.)
1:30 a.m.: Civilian radar loses contact with MH370 over the Gulf of Thailand. The aircraft's last confirmed position is at 35,000 feet and 90 miles off the east coast of the Malaysian peninsula. According to reports, at some point after 1:30 a.m. the flight turns sharply westward.
1:37 a.m.: The next regular transmission from the ACARS system (which repeats every half hour) does not occur. According to experts, turning off the ACARS system is a complex technical task requiring in-depth expertise.
2:15 a.m.: The Malaysian Air Force reportedly tracks the plane flying in a westerly direction over the Strait of Malacca, west of Malaysia in the opposite direction of its scheduled flightpath.
8:11 a.m.: A satellite “handshake” signal detects the plane more than seven hours after take-off. The data does not provide location or heading but only two possible flight “corridors” to the north and south where the aircraft was located when contact was made.
EVIDENCE AND THEORIES: Until Flight MH370 is located or a crash site is found, investigators may never have a definitive answer about what happened. Amid this shortage of information, still constantly changing, theories about the fate of MH370 abound.
Mechanical/Electrical Failure: The lack of a distress call suggests a sudden and catastrophic event over water, which is where the search is focused. Pictured, a Royal Malaysian Air Force crewman scans the ocean’s surface from the air.
Search efforts have focused along the aircraft's expected flight path northeast from Malaysia and also northwest to the Strait of Malacca, based on radar evidence of its later movements. Evidence that the plane changed course and flew for an hour or more could be still explained by a mechanical problem.
Given the amount of fuel onboard MH370 and an average airspeed, its possible location (crashed or otherwise) encompasses a huge area.
Several oil slicks were located in the South China Sea and are being investigating to see if they are tied to MH370.
Chinese officials last week released this satellite image of possible debris along the flight's intended route, some measuring as large as 24 meters across. But Vietnamese search crews could not locate the debris to confirm.
Another possible scenario is a sudden loss of cabin pressure or a fire that incapacitated the crew, leaving the aircraft to fly on automated systems until it ran out of fuel. This scenario resembles the fate of Helios Airways Flight 522 in 2005, and would explain the possible flight path out into the Indian Ocean.
Pilot Chris Goodfellow offers a similar theory in Wired.com that he says covers all known information: A serious electrical fire knocked out the transponder and ACARS, and the flight crew (too busy to radio in) turned west to attempt an emergency divert instead of returning to Kuala Lumpur (he suggests Pulau Langkawi) but were overcome by smoke. The plane then flew on under automated controls.
Did MH370 land? A Boeing 777 requires a fairly long runway, but the number of possible landing sites is surprising. Radio station WNYC created this map of 634 runways that would meet the criteria of length (at least 5,000 feet) and range (up to 2,200 nautical miles from the plane’s last reported position).
Hijacking: Because the plane’s transponder was turned off and its ACARS system may have been disabled, some speculation has surrounded the possible involvement of pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah and the theft of the aircraft to ransom the passengers or use it as a weapon.
Other reports indicate the plane may have taken evasive maneuvers to avoid radar tracking, another indication of possible flight-crew involvement. Shah has flown for Malaysia Airlines since 1981, and built a complex flight simulator at his home (pictured, image via YouTube).
Terrorism: Early reports indicated that two Iranian passengers (pictured on security cameras) were using stolen passports, but Malaysian officials have ruled out any connection to known terrorist organizations. So far no terrorist group has claimed responsibility.
THE SEARCH: Here’s a look at the massive international effort. Pictured, Indonesian Air Force personnel review a map of the Strait of Malacca.
Onboard a patrol vessel of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.
A Royal Malaysian Air Force crew confer onboard a CN235 aircraft over the Strait of Malacca.
Searching for clues in the Straits of Malacca.
An Indonesian National Search and Rescue boat searches the Adaman Sea.
Chinese Navy personnel take part in the search.
Vietnamese Air Force Colonel Pham Minh Tuan scans the surface during a search of the Gulf of Thailand.
Personnel work in the cockpit of a Vietnamese air force helicopter during a search off Vietnam's Tho Chu island.
Vietnamese military personnel prepare a helicopter for a search and rescue mission.
A Vietnamese military official works with a map inside a flying Soviet-made AN-26 off the coast of Vietnam.
Republic of Singapore Air Force personnel scan the seas northeast of Kota Baru, Malaysia.
Filipino soldiers plan their part of the search.
Japanese Coast Guard pilots in a Gulfstream V Jet aircraft search the South China Sea.
U.S. Navy crew members assist in search-and-rescue operations in the Indian Ocean.
Updated: Mar. 18, 2014

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