ROCK rebel Courtney Love conformed last week when she nominated a smudge on a satellite image as debris from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Her announcement, complete with handwritten pointers, led to Where’s Wally gags and the like. The vanishing of 239 souls was overlooked in the silliness.
Still, Love had chosen to be “part of the crowd”. She had accepted an invitation issued by satellite company Tomnod, which had thrown up bazillions of images for the world to ponder. Millions of people gorged on the offer.
The satellite scanning pursuit was rather compulsive once you got started, the hope of an unlikely answer to a bulging list of contradictions.
My effort was as tokenistic as flicking a coin at a charity collector. It revealed less than a breakfast TV interview with a Kardashian. But the exercise did tap an urge to do something, anything. It was a stab at finding the truth.
The instinct to help was natural enough. London mayor Boris Johnson wrote that “this is one of the first times I can remember when the whole human race has seemed as one in their sympathy and their concern for others”.
Concern can take many forms. Within hours, the flight’s fate was subjected to more conspiracy theories than the Mary Celeste, the ghost ship found floating in the Atlantic Ocean in 1872.
There was no theory to fit the facts. There were too few dots to join. Were the pilots heroes or villains? Take your pick. Was it an accident or aliens? Take your pick.
Part of the reason for this, and it goes to the only flaw in Johnson’s otherwise sweet sentiment, lay in the tyrannical workings of Malaysia’s leadership. Malaysia neither pursued nor shared the available evidence as the need for truth demanded.
Up to three separate Malaysian military radar stations missed the unidentified plane tracking across the country — to the west. No matter, Malaysia decided. Let’s keep the information an official secret for five days. Let’s spend a week supervising a multinational search of a sea — to the east.
When leaks to the press began to contradict the official message, when relatives start throwing water bottles and exploding with grief, and when China — of all nations — started querying Malaysia’s approach, officials seemed to apply a bureaucratic dispassion best reserved for a misplaced shipping container.
Calamities help define nations. Australians draw on mateship in the face of bushfires, for example. Americans bow to patriotism when confronted by terror. Those sentiments tend to flow without conscious effort. They don’t excise errors of judgment that can compound the size of the tragedy. But they do offer comfort in times of extreme need.
Malaysia is a hub of trade and enterprise. It has long been ruled by a political party unaccustomed to close levels of scrutiny. The country is marked for its affluence and corruption.
Presented with a catastrophe, its leaders couldn’t give anyone anything to believe in. Facts were scarce. Lacking answers, Malaysia did not seek the clean embrace of transparency. It offered stony faces and a hint of petulance in the face of international scepticism. Its leadership was exposed as all pulse and no heart.
Malaysia’s government wanted the truth, presumably, but its need to control the information undermined Johnson’s optimism.
It wasn’t united with the rest of the world: it was instead braced against a chorus of confusion. It bumbled from the start; in this, it is no different from any other major disaster in which human error always plays a role.
YET in masking the errors, Malaysia compounded them. It knowingly looked in places less likely to yield evidence. It contradicted itself: was an on-board communications system manually switched off before the last radio contact, as stated, or was that point of fact unclear, as later stated? Its prime minister, Najib Razak, took a full week to front the media. Did he have better things to do? Was he washing his hair? He took no questions from a hungry press. Heaven forbid they ask tricky questions.
This sense of inaccessibility accounts for the behaviour of Chinese relatives last Wednesday. The scene dripped with grief and injustice, much like that of a Russian woman being sedated with a needle in 2000. Her husband had died in the Kursk submarine explosion — she collapsed soon after the drug was administered, without her knowledge, by a woman in a white coat.
President Vladimir Putin, a newbie in the role, was on holiday at the time. He didn’t cut short his trip to return to Moscow, despite conflicting reports and a rising clamour about secrets.
Putin doesn’t admit to many mistakes. He admitted to that one.
Perhaps Malaysia will do the same one day. Rarely have notions of “global community” seemed less twee as in the collective sigh for the MH370 tragedy. And rarely has a supposedly peace-loving country seemed so alone.