Tuesday, June 02, 2009
Air France 447: The rush to judgment
Everyone speculating about what happened to AF 447 acknowledges that it's baffling. An anomaly. No evidence to support any hypothesis.
Except, as usual, the instant reflex is to deny that it could be terrorism.
"Both French and US sources have ruled out terrorism as the cause of the plane's loss," the International Business Times says. Other sources content themselves with statements to the effect that there is no reason to suspect terrorism.
"Miles O'Brien … a pilot, airplane owner and freelance journalist who lives in Manhattan," asks rhetorically, "No reason to believe terrorism - While you cannot take the possibility of a bomb off the list just yet, no groups have claimed any responsibility for downing the plane. What good is a terrorist attack if the perpetrators don't, well, terrorize us?"
Please. This could have been a test of a methodology for bringing down airliners in locations where a couple of miles of ocean depth and hundreds of square miles of ocean surface will hide the evidence forever. Only three years ago, you will recall, counterterrorism officials rolled up a cell of Muslim terrorists in Britain who were on the verge of blowing up multiple airliners over the Atlantic, which would have caused what a police official called "mass murder on an unimaginable scale." If AF 447 was a rehearsal for a far bigger operation, would it make sense for the group behind it to take responsibility?
A writer for the Toronto Globe and Mail has broken ranks with officialdom and sounds skeptical about the lightning-strike-and-turbulence theory.
Don't get me wrong: I have no idea what brought down AF 447. I don't claim there is evidence that it was a terrorist act — there can be no evidence at this point.
Nevertheless, it is a political, not a factual, statement to immediately rule out terrorism, which always seems to happen in events like this. The aviation industry, quite rightly, strongly discourages speculation about the causes of an accident in its immediate aftermath, asking that we wait until the investigation is concluded rather than jump to conclusions. But instantly ruling out or scoffing at the possibility of terrorism is jumping to conclusions.
Of course Western governments and media want so much to be fair to terrorists. But in prematurely absolving them, are they being fair to the airline? To the posthumous reputation of the flight crew, and the feelings of the flight crewmembers' families? To Airbus? To the maintenance industry? Because if you quash any discussion of terrorism before the investigation has even spooled up, you are implying someone probably committed an error that cost hundreds of lives.
The French BEA and the U.S. NTSB are among the world's best aviation accident investigation authorities. They will take immense pains to learn what happened in this dreadful event. But, given the location, we may never know for sure.
However, the passenger list was a United Nations — people from 30 or so countries, according to reports. Besides looking for wreckage, the cockpit voice recorder, and flight data recorder, let us trust that the investigation will include a thorough background check of every occupant.