In an age when mobile phones with cameras get to disaster zones even before television crews rush in, we have come to expect graphic images of tragedy to fill our TV screens long before the narrative behind the tragedy is fully pieced together. In a world where image is supreme, where television cameras fiercely jostle with each other for that prized shot, where ordinary people with mobile phones become citizen journalists, we expect tragedy, whether its man-made or natural, to come fully illustrated—collapsed buildings, mangled limbs, charred bogies of trains, airplanes crashing into skyscrapers in front of our horrified eyes.
Flight MH370 has none of that. Days after the tragedy we hear about a “yellow object” floating in the sea. Perhaps an oil slick. But all we have seen on 24-hour television is the footage of anxious families huddled in Beijing airport, glued to cellphones. We have watched poker-faced bureaucrats and airline officials addressing press conferences, and seen the deceptively calm waters of the South China Sea and stock footage of some other more fortunate Malaysia Airlines aircraft whizzing into the sky.
We can accept that airplanes crash. It is much harder to accept that at a time when Google Earth wants to map every square foot of our planet, airplanes carrying 239 people can just vanish without a trace. At a time when we rebuke the media for its almost ghoulish overzealousness in covering a disaster, this is a disaster that has left the media scrambling for images to make it real. That leaves us with something far more terrifying—we can only speculate about the disappearance of MH370, imagine the panic on board as everything slipped horribly out of control.
This seems more terrifying even than 9/11 which horrifying as it was, happened in real time, in front of our shocked eyes, images that could be replayed over and over again. That had the solidity of fact at least. This only has the nightmare of imagination.
My uncle was a pilot for Indian Airlines. It was all he ever wanted to be. As a child that seemed very glamorous to us, his nephews and nieces. He would fly in with cured meat from Andamans, black grapes from Hyderabad, once even a little hill-breed puppy from Kathmandu tucked into his pocket. But every time he flew and there was a thunderstorm or even monsoon clouds my mother would scan the skies with growing anxiety. In those days there were no mobile phones, no internet. My mother would call his house anxiously a dozen times until he made it back home. He was lucky. Others were not. One of his cousins in the Air Force crashed into the hills of the North East. At least that was what was believed.
Nothing was ever found. No wing tip. No mangled seats. His widow refused to give up hope. She lived and dressed as a married woman until she died decades later. Other family members thought of it as a little strange, even unnatural. But perhaps what is truly unnatural is the fact that we fly. We were not meant to fly. But we do, in defiance not of physics but of our nature.
Every time we fly it is an act of utter surrender. Perhaps that is why few of us bother to pay attention to those safety drill demonstrations at the beginning of each flight or read that card in our seat pocket telling us about inflatable jackets and oxygen masks. It’s not just that we expect our plane will not be the one to fall out of the sky. It’s that if we truly thought about it, and how little we can do if it does happen, none of us would be able to fly.
A jumbo jet parked on the tarmac looks massive, impregnably solid. But hurtling at 31,000 feet, despite serving up the illusion of normalcy on plastic food trays and piped movies and television shows, it remains utterly vulnerable, a bubble that is far away from real meaningful assistance if anything goes wrong. That’s what makes airplanes such a prime target for terror attacks whether it’s a hijacker commandeering it or a bomb in a luggage compartment. It is like taking over a self-contained mini-world that has unmoored itself from its natural element.
If this flight did crash into the Southern Indian Ocean, perhaps the images of its end will surface sooner or later as they did with Air India’s Kanishka on the Atlantic Ocean, the first bombing of a 747 jumbo jet. 132 of those bodies were recovered, some showing signs of lack of oxygen, some showing signs of “explosive decompression,” many with little or no clothing. That disaster shook us because it was the first jumbo jet downed by sabotage, the horror of that realization compounded by the poignancy of its debris—a drowned teddy bear bobbing forlornly in the sea.
Over the years we have become more stringent about checks to prevent those acts of sabotage. We have become used to taking off our shoes and carrying our toiletries in see-through plastic. This latest tragedy, whatever its cause, will probably not make us fly less. We are now too dependent on flying, our families scattered all over the globe. But it reminds us brutally that in a world where we think we are more in control of our lives and destinies than ever before, that control can disappear in an instant.
And even if we are buckled to our seats and our tray tables latched as instructed, when that happens, we are as helpless as the mythological Icarus whose wings melted as he flew too close to the sun.
Sandip Roy is the Culture Editor for Firstpost.com. He is on leave as editor with New America Media. His weekly dispatches from India can be heard on KALW.org. This article was first published on Firstpost.com.