Air tragedies bring grief without order
LONDON — When air travel goes wrong, the modern world has given us a script to follow.
Forensic workers in coveralls descend on the crash scene. Police tape seals off the site and keeps the full horror at a distance. There is an orderly numbering of the dead and gathering of the evidence. Bodies are repatriated, funerals are held. Eventually, there is explanation.
The bereaved, and the rest of us, take solace in science, logic, investigation, the gradual restoration of order. It's a process that organizes tragedy into a shape the mind can process and the heart can grieve. Whether it was mechanical failure, human error or terrorism, we are reassured by the notion that knowledge brings the power to stop it from happening again.
But 2014 has been different.
Twice this year, when disaster struck two Malaysia Airlines planes, fate has torn up the script. One plane disappeared, leaving investigators combing a vast ocean, a disaster with no wreckage and no bodies.
Another scattered its remains across a vast field, where political unrest made an orderly process impossible. We have been cast adrift, unmoored from the familiar rituals that say: Despite the tragedy, we are still in control.
Cary Cooper, professor of psychology at Lancaster University in northern England, says we are forced to face the thing we hate the most: chaos. "It's very unsettling for people to feel there's not a system, a process."
Usually, to keep horror at bay, we watch the news and slot it into boxes: a war here, a disaster there (and the farther away the better).
But two worlds collided when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, filled with holidaymakers and AIDS researchers, was taken down by a missile fired from a war in eastern Ukraine. None of the 298 people aboard was a citizen of Ukraine or Russia.
With the crash site in a war zone, all the usual rules and procedures evaporated. Confusion about who was in charge, and hostile militiamen, kept international investigators away, and the disaster scene stood largely unsecured. International monitors said debris had been tampered with. There were reports of looting.
While investigators were kept out, journalists made their way in. They produced a stream of scarcely comprehensible images. Bodies and body parts where they shouldn't be — in someone's house, in a field, still buckled into a seat. The scorched and damaged detritus of family holidays: guidebooks, duty-free bags, teddy bears and toys.
For many watching on television and computer screens, the images produced a sense of mesmerizing dread, as horrified fascination battled the urge to look away. It felt — as Shakespeare's Macduff says in "Macbeth" — "beyond words and beyond belief."
You could see it in the faces of the television journalists. They sometimes seemed adrift, unsure how to behave, or how much of the horror they could or should convey. Sky News correspondent Colin Brazier drew condemnation — and quickly apologized — for briefly picking up personal effects from the wreckage during a live television report.
He said it had been a momentary lapse of judgment "in a place without rules."
Meanwhile, around the world, families of the victims looked on aghast, wondering who would impose order, uncertain when they could bury their dead.
"When I am in my bed at night, I see my son lying on the ground," said Silene Fredriksz-Hoogzand, whose son Bryce and his girlfriend Daisy Oehlers died on their way to a vacation in Bali — two of almost 200 Dutch passengers killed. "They have to come home, not only those two. Everybody has to come home."
She was expressing a near-universal human wish: to bring home the remains, observe the rituals of mourning, give grief a shape and a focus.
The bereaved relatives' wish is, slowly and partially, being fulfilled. Days after the crash, the majority of the bodies were removed in a refrigerated train, and began to be flown to the Netherlands. But while the remains have begun their journey home, the investigation is still a long way off. The Dutch prime minister has said identifying all the bodies could take months.
For another set of families there is no wreckage, no bodies and no answers.
Flight 17 was shot down less than five months after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which was carrying 239 people from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it veered off course and vanished. It is believed to have crashed in the southern Indian Ocean, but an Australian-led search has found no trace of the jet.
There's a mind-bending possibility that it may never be found. In a world of high-tech surveillance and instant information, where we worry about governments reading our emails and companies knowing our innermost secrets, how can a passenger jet simply disappear?
For the loved ones of the dead in both disasters, the agony and uncertainty may never end. They may never get complete closure.
For the millions of others, fascination with Flight 370 faded as life rolled on, reduced to the occasional nagging thought: Where is that plane?
The more recent crash is fresher, still fills us with horror and fascination — and an undercurrent of unease as we acknowledge that we will look away. Life will go on.
For those not directly involved, tragedies must give way to the demands of daily life, as the poet W.H. Auden knew when he wrote in "Musee des Beaux Arts" that tragedy "takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along."
The poem describes how we inevitably turn away, as in Pieter Bruegel's painting of the mythical Icarus, drowned after flying too close to the sun on wax wings:
"The expensive delicate ship that must have seen
"Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
"Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."