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Exciting Mystery vs. Depressing Reality


The Atlantic has a long, detailed overview of the MH370 disappearance, which turned five earlier this year. Written by William Langewiesche, it constructs a straightforward timeline of events: on the plane, on the ground, and during the days, months, and years of the various investigations into the disappearance. Langewiesche not only offers a compelling theory of the crime, but plausibly argues that the only reason we think of MH370 as a “mystery” is because of failures on the part of relevant Malaysian authorities in the hours after the plane disappeared from radar, and obfuscation from the Malaysian government and law enforcement during the investigation.

The mystery surrounding MH370 has been a focus of continued investigation and a source of sometimes feverish public speculation. The loss devastated families on four continents. The idea that a sophisticated machine, with its modern instruments and redundant communications, could simply vanish seems beyond the realm of possibility. It is hard to permanently delete an email, and living off the grid is nearly unachievable even when the attempt is deliberate. A Boeing 777 is meant to be electronically accessible at all times. The disappearance of the airplane has provoked a host of theories. Many are preposterous. All are given life by the fact that, in this age, commercial airplanes don’t just vanish.

This one did, and more than five years later its precise whereabouts remain unknown. Even so, a great deal about the disappearance of MH370 has come into clearer view, and reconstructing much of what happened that night is possible. The cockpit voice recorder and the flight-data recorder may never be recovered, but what we still need to know is unlikely to come from the black boxes. Instead, it will have to come from Malaysia.

It’s not a perfect article—in particular, I’m not sure why Langewiesche spends so much time on Blaine Gibson, a beachcomber who has spearheaded much of the search for pieces of the plane on the coastline of East Africa, given that none of the recovered pieces have contributed anything to the investigation (beyond, that is, confirming that MH370 went down in the Indian Ocean, which we surely knew from the absence of a large, smoking crater in Kazakhstan, the other proposed crash site). More importantly, Langewiesche’s arguments about the Malaysian authorities’ deep-seated corruption and their role in obscuring the truth about MH370 feel more vehement than grounded. It’s notable, for example, how few sources from within the country are featured in the article. While individual failures—such as the Malaysian air force allowing the plane to overfly one their bases without alerting anyone or sending up fighters to examine it—are undeniable, Langewiesche’s overall conclusions about the country don’t feel quite as concrete.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating and illuminating read, and by its end I found Langewiesche’s argument about the identity of the perpetrator, the motive for the disappearance, and the role that Malaysian obfuscation played in obscuring both, thoroughly undeniable. By laying out the facts of the case so clearly, Langewiesche eliminates all plausible explanations except for one. As one of his interviewees puts it, the mystery is “a pyramid that is broad at the base and one man wide at the top, meaning that the inquiry might have begun with many possible explanations but ended up with a single one.”

TL;DR? The pilot did it. Which is maddening when you recall how vehemently that possibility was rejected in the early days following the disappearance. I vividly remember the insistence with which voices coming out of Malaysia insisted that the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, couldn’t possibly have kidnapped and murdered his passengers, the repeated arguments that such a respected, experienced man was the last person who could be suspected of such a horrible crime. You could ascribe these denials to shock, grief, and lingering loyalty, of course, but given some of the revelations Langewiesche makes—that Shah was separated from his wife, for example—they feel rather thin. By the time he drops the bombshell that the flight simulator in Shah’s home contained a flight plan roughly the same as MH370’s path, it seems obvious that there could be no other explanation. And yet that information came to light in 2016, while today MH370 is still classed as an unsolved disappearance.

I’ve been reading Picnic at Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel about a group of girls in early 20th century Australia who go on an outing to the titular rock formation, where four of them disappear. Apparently a lot of people mistakenly believe that the book is based on a real-life disappearance. In fiction, a mystery such as four women wandering off into a wilderness they aren’t equipped to survive can take on grand, tragic dimensions, and become a vehicle for themes of colonialism, confining gender roles, and repressed sexuality. In reality, mysteries, once solved, are usually mundanely awful. A depressed man convinces himself that not only should he end his own life, but that he’s entitled to take 238 other people—five of them children, eleven of them his friends and colleagues—along with him. I can’t help but feel that if he knew that his actions had caused a worldwide sensation and the spinning of endless elaborate, nonsensical theories, Shah would be pleased. Which seems like far more than he deserves.

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