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AP Essay: Air tragedies bring grief without order

Published on NewsOK Modified: July 26, 2014 at 3:24 am •  Published: July 26, 2014
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LONDON (AP) — 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.

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