Speaking Ill of the Dead

As of this morning, the exact cause of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 remains an unsolved mystery. However, it seems most plausible based on what we know so far that the hypothesis published a week ago in Wired magazine is closest to the truth. After weeks of increasingly wild and disturbing speculation, the reporting seems to have finally settled down to a more sober analysis of the limited facts available. In all of this, we can learn something about the dark side of human nature. 

The Royal Australian Air Force searches for some trace of Flight 370 (AFP Photo/Bohdan Warchomij)

The Royal Australian Air Force searches for some trace of Flight 370 (AFP Photo/Bohdan Warchomij)

The prevailing theory now seems to be that the pilots were most likely faced with a catastrophic failure of several critical systems which ultimately prevented them from landing the plane safely as they approached for an emergency landing on the island of Pulau Langkawi. Either the pilots were disoriented and possibly incapacitated due to conditions on board or they decided to go down in a remote location after the situation became hopeless to minimize the possibility of even worse casualties from crash landing in a densely-populated area.

Of course, we do not know any of this for certain. This is a very plausible scenario, but as with any airline incident, it will take months and years of meticulous forensic analysis and detailed reconstruction of the timeline of events and complex three-dimensional simulations before we can truly know what happened. To put things in perspective, it took over four years after the TWA Flight 800 disaster for the National Transportation Safety Board to be able to issue a conclusive report–and that was for an accident within sight of land and busy shipping lanes in the most populous part of the United States, not in the middle of a vast featureless expanse of ocean.

Frontispiece for the Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus, 1616

Frontispiece for the Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus, 1616

Nevertheless, it is our human nature; we want to know things and we want to know now. We want certainty. We want immediacy. From the fall of man in the Garden of Eden to the sophistry of shamans and alchemists to the snake oil hucksters and charlatans to the incessant babbling of the talking heads today, this insatiable yearning for knowledge of things we cannot understand has so often been our undoing. Worse still, when faced with death and destruction, we have a tendency to imagine dark and sinister motives even when there is no evidence. This tendency is exacerbated by the modern hyper-saturation of constant information (and misinformation). 

It’s bad enough that the passengers who died were subjected to posthumous background checks. Imagine the grieving friends and family members being interviewed about the moral character of someone who boarded an airplane and disappeared from the face of the earth without a trace. In any disaster, government officials must necessarily exercise due diligence with caution, discretion, and sensitivity. However, there is no excuse for the circulation of baseless rumors and slander by the endless and ghastly parade of the 24-hour news cycle. Whether the pilots faced with a desperate situation, the Iranians seeking political asylum, or an Uyghur painter, all of the passengers of Flight 370 deserve to be treated as innocent until proven otherwise.

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Masaccio, c. 1425

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (with later fig leaves) by Masaccio, c. 1425

It is a reality in the post-9/11 world that there are bad people in the world who will kill and destroy whenever they get the chance. Although airport security and domestic surveillance have become the butt of prime-time talk show jokesters and objects of scorn, we do live in a dangerous world. As Americans, we have lost our innocence. Like Adam and Eve, we are now fully aware of our vulnerability and have adopted a mentality that technology can protect us, like a kind of 21st-century fig leaf, but this sense of security is an illusion.

Machines will always break down. Technology will always malfunction. Human operators will always make mistakes. Reality will always deviate from standard procedures. It is ironic that our lust for knowledge brought death and suffering into the world and yet without perhaps even realizing it, we now effortlessly believe that knowledge can somehow conquer our mortality. Such is the perversity of the human condition in our modern world that we uncritically place our trust in machines but are naturally suspicious of our fellow man. 

There is an old aphorism, “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum,” which is rendered in English as “Speak no ill of the dead.” We must remember that whenever there is this kind of calamity, real people are hurt and killed. They have real families who experience real sadness and whose lives are changed forever.  We must not add to the bitterness of their suffering in a time of tragedy by jumping to unwarranted conclusions. There is another old proverb that dead men tell no tales, but in truth, modern forensic techniques allow the dead to speak for themselves–if only we have the patience to listen.

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One thought on “Speaking Ill of the Dead

  1. Eric Johnson says:

    “Speak no ill of the dead.” Absolutely true. There is no value in doing so and it changes nothing for the better. Perhaps more importantly, the dead are not here to defend themselves.

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