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Too soon for MH370 punchlines


Satellite photo of a plane resembling MH370The jokes have already begun. One meme juxtaposed a photograph of an F-117 Nighthawk and a caption declaring its formidable stealth capabilities, with a picture of a Boeing 777 similar to that used in flight MH370 and the tart retort, 'Bitch, please.' Another featured Hervé Villechaize's Fantasy Island character Tattoo, whose claim to fame was crying 'The plane! The plane!' to announce the arrival of a new set of resort guests — perhaps he should help with the search for the Malaysia Airlines passenger flight that went missing two weeks ago?

Contrast these wry gibes with the image of Erlina Panjaitan, mother of 24-year-old MH370 passenger Firman Chandra Siregar, slumped in anguish among the consoling arms of her family. Of four Chinese men, sagging and sombre in a dark hotel ballroom, as they watch news coverage of the disappearance. Of a woman weeping, and a man crumpling a damp tissue in the fist that props his stooped head. Of other relatives of passengers, locked in an embrace ahead of a meeting with airline officials. These are the human faces of the tragedy.

There is little doubt that it is too soon and the story too tragic to be the butt of jokes. But the fact that such responses exist speaks to the ways in which this story has permeated the public imagination in unhealthy ways. The engagement is frequently marked by genuine concern, but also contains a deeply voyeuristic fascination that is divorced from the humanity of these events. People love a mystery, and an unhappy ending even more. It seems likely that the greater the drama of the eventual truth, the more satisfied we will be.

Despite the slim hope that the aircraft has landed in remote terrain, stranded but safe, the sad truth is that the story will probably turn out to be one of heartbreak for the families and loved ones of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members. Yet it is not the human tragedy but the chords of uncertainty and mystery — the lack of debris, the formal sign-off that came from the plane some hours after things had ostensibly started to go awry — that have captured the public imagination. MH370 has already become the stuff of legend.

Some commentators predict a mundane, albeit tragic outcome. Writing for wired.com, Chris Goodfellow, a pilot with 20 years experience, outlines a commonsense theory involving a cockpit fire, that encapsulates some of the more baffling details of the case. Goodfellow draws on his extensive experience to make sensible inferences about the thought processes of the flight's senior captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, and cast doubt on some of the more fanciful conspiracy theories. His account isn't airtight, but it is refreshingly levelheaded, and persuasive.

Yet the conspiracy theories hold sway. News sources have thrived on rumours of terrorist hijackings and government cover-ups, and shovel-fed them to a ravenous public. Chagrined by the fatuous coverage, a colleague voiced his own theory: that the culprits are Kang and Kodos, the cycloptic, tentacled extraterrestrials of The Simpsons fame. In an age where the immediacy of social media and the surfeit of 'celebrity' make human lives fair game, we take our news with a dose of drama, and the more extreme, the better.

It's the same psychology that is at play when we blindly accept the latest celebrity death hoax (this week it was Wayne Knight, Seinfeld's Newman, who had to take to Twitter to assure the public of his continued viability). Or when the tragic news of a celebrity's death is proven to be true. Philip Seymour Hoffman was reported dead, then it was a hoax, then it turned out to be true after all. The grief we feel for popular public figures who die may be authentic, but doesn't it also contain a kind of voyeuristic satisfaction, that the narrative of their life, in which we have been so invested, should come to such a dramatic conclusion?

The MH370 story does make for compelling drama. I've been as enticed by the elements of mystery as anyone else. But let's not lose sight of the main picture: 239 human beings have likely lost their lives. They will leave behind friends and families for whom the grief will be real and long-lasting, and not the stuff of reality TV rubbernecking. The search for answers should be marked by sensitivity and empathy for them, and not be fuelled by a broader public thirst for dramatic satisfaction. And it's definitely too soon for jokes.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, MH370, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse



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Existing comments

The disappearance of flight MH370 feeds into a lot of fears: fear of flying, fear of the unexpected, fear of terrorism and fear of oblivion. I can admit that I am someone who has a fear of flying, sitting alongside other fears. Our deepest sympathy must go to the relatives and friends of those missing. It's incomprehensible to me that people would make jokes about such a significantly sad event in peoples' lives. Often we joke about things when it's difficult to go on being ultra-serious but this particular event does not fall into that category.

Pam | 21 March 2014  

A thoughtful analysis,Tim, and your comment - "The grief we feel for popular public figures who die may be authentic, but doesn't it also contain a kind of voyeuristic satisfaction, that the narrative of their life, in which we have been so invested, should come to such a dramatic conclusion?" - caused me to reflect on the reason that people attend funerals and the macabre interest people have in tragic events, such as road accidents etc. There appears to be something innately human about the seemingly detached way in which we can observe the tragedy in other people's misfortune.

Noel Will | 24 March 2014  

Well said Tim.....pray for the families who have the uncertainty & most likely loss to bear.

Penny | 24 March 2014  

What distresses me is that the Malaysian authorities immediately went into "Spin Doctoring" mode and we did not get any real details till a week later. When the communication systems shut down without notice and the Thai radio controllers spotted a strange plane off course surely there should have been some international system whereby strange happenings can be reported and examined in real time.

john Ozanne | 24 March 2014  

The MH370 mystery is not only an unprecedented aviation event, it is also an unprecedented internet event, in as much as the internet in all its forms has been used by thousands if not millions of amateur investigators. It has revealed that there is a Sherlock Holmes inside most of us, ready to offer every possible explanation for a ping here and a piece of debris there. It is the internet that has made this possible and even our columnist is on the job, arguing for the most rational explanation against a whole host of mere ‘conspiracy’ theories. But as we know from Holmes, the obvious answer isn’t always the right answer, and the unobvious solution can turn out to be not only rational but correct. Question is, which Holmes is right?

close reading | 24 March 2014  

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