Man loves his machines, and grieves when they fail. Worse than the failure is the mystery of why they fail. Airplanes, one of man's most celebrated and reliable machines, rarely fail, and when they do, there's a race to find out why.
Ships of six of the world's navies and planes of a dozen countries have raced to station in the South China Sea, 120 miles off the coast of Vietnam, where the Boeing 777 of Malaysian Airways was last heard from.
There was a report of "something" off the Andaman Islands, hundreds of mile west of Vietnam and hundreds of miles off-course. In this part of the world — "somewhere east of Suez, where the best is like the worst" — vague is as specific as some things get.
The plight of Malaysian Airways Flight 370 has seized the attention of the world because man's machines aren't supposed to do that. This is Kipling's phantom rickshaw reprised and writ large.
Even if the plane was destroyed by an explosion terrific enough to break it into tiny pieces, they have to fall to earth somewhere.
The director of the Malaysian Civil Aviation Authority calls the disappearance "an unprecedented mystery." Very little is actually unprecendented, there being no new thing under the sun, but the director has a point. This is mystery wrapped in enigma.
Interpol is pursuing the tip that at least two passengers were traveling on stolen passports, which is usually suspicious, but in Asia, not so much. There's a thriving black market in stolen documents.
The men who used the stolen passports were said to be "not of Asian appearance," and of "Middle Eastern appearance." Five passengers checked in to board the flight, but never did. The flight reservations for two passengers with stolen passports were booked by one "Mr. Ali."
The conspiracy theorists went right to work, as they always do. Islamic terrorists, given their vivid track record, were early suspects.
North Korea, which has been firing rockets into the skies over Asia, is capable of firing a rocket, accidentally or otherwise, to crash into a big Boeing at 35,000 feet. A North Korean missile did, in fact, fly past a Chinese airliner off the Korean Peninsula only the day before the disappearance of Flight 370. That was an acknowledged accident, and no harm was done.
The most entertaining speculation is by the usual men in tinfoil hats, who get intelligence by radio waves received through their teeth. They raced to get on the Internet first with the most exciting tips. (If you read it on the Internet, you know it's so.)
An early top seller on the tinfoil circuit is that the plane and its passengers were abducted by aliens and taken to a distant corner of the universe for examination and dark "experimentation." Or that al Qaeda agents took over the plane and have hidden it in "a big hangar" for later use as a weapon of mass destruction, a reprise of 9/11.
A trail of stolen passports lends further mystery. Airport security in Asia ranges from bad to good, but rarely rises to the American and British standard. Interpol estimates that more than a billion passengers boarded passenger planes last year without effective passport control.
"There are only a handful of countries in the world that do it very vigilantly," the Center for Immigration Studies tells The Wall Street Journal. "The countries that don't do it become the weak link in international travel."
One of the weakest links is Bangkok. Hundreds of thousands of tourists go to Thailand looking for sexual adventures. So, too, thousands of backpackers eager to see if they can travel on a dollar a day.
Khao San Road in Bangkok is a warren of little shops selling fake documents of all kinds, press cards, police badges, even a fake diploma, suitable for framing, from Harvard. Thai police say that more than 100,000 passports have been stolen or altered over the past five years.
Such a passport can fetch up to $7,000 in a dark tavern or dim alley, and occasional backpackers, finding out they can't live well on a dollar a day after all, can prosper for a year on the proceeds of a "lost" passport. A replacement is available at the nearest embassy.
The lesson from the vanished passenger liner is that the serious nations of the world, united at the moment in a search for clues, must stay together to impose and enforce real security in the world's airports, even in Asia.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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