Paul Pillar

Speculative Mischief and Flight 370

The longer the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 continues, the more opportunity there will be for stories about what happened to the plane to take root and to endure well after an investigation has debunked them. The start of such a story does not require much beyond someone's sheer speculation—perhaps some scrap, some grain of truth, out of which an entire scenario gets spun. And then the story becomes another example of the urban legend phenomenon: of how nothing much more than the longevity and ubiquity of a belief leads many people to accept it as true.

Beliefs about happenings with uncertain explanations can have consequences for public policy. This is not necessarily wrong when investigations have yet to reach a conclusion and the belief in question might still turn out to be true. For some time after TWA Flight 800 exploded off Long Island in 1996, the possibility that the plane was intentionally downed contributed to an increase in resources the United States allocated to counterterrorism. The response reflected the occurrence in rapid succession of the plane crash and two actual terrorist attacks in 1996: a pipe bomb at the Atlanta Olympics and the truck bombing of a U.S. military barracks at Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia.

What is certainly not warranted is to continue to run with a particular belief after a completed investigation has dismissed it. Eighteen years after the crash of TWA 800, it still provides fodder for those who refuse to accept the investigative finding that an accidental explosion in a fuel tank brought the plane down.

This kind of thing is mostly the work of the usual corps of private sector conspiracy theorists, What is even more inexcusable is when anyone with a policy agenda does something similar. Richard Cheney continued to refer to a meeting that 9/11 chief hijacker Mohamed Atta supposedly had with an Iraqi official in Prague, after U.S. agencies had exhaustively investigated the possibility and determined that no such meeting had taken place.

Perhaps a policy agenda has helped to generate a story that appeared during the past week at Al-Jazeera alleging that the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 was the doing of Iran, working through the group known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command. The idea that the PFLP-GC had planted the bomb was actually an early investigative hypothesis, although the state sponsor mentioned most often was Syria, which provided a haven to the group. The hypothesis proved to be a dead end. A very long and laborious investigation, which painstakingly pieced together the forensic evidence, determined conclusively that the bombing was instead the work of Libya.

There are multiple reasons to hope that there soon will be a breakthrough in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and that investigators can rapidly get to the truth of what happened to the plane. One of the reasons is to prevent the build-up of momentum of untruthful stories about what happened to it.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Laurent ERRERA. CC BY-SA 2.0.