Opinion

Sans facts, missing plane conspiracy theories abound

When we don't know the truth, we create narratives to cope with tragedy and help us process death

The plight of the missing Malaysian plane is not a fictional tale from the mind of Edgar Allan Poe, nor is it a sequel to Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” The tragedy of Flight MH370 is real. Every passenger on board, and every family member and friend of those missing, are real people. Their fears and concerns are not written into dialogue, and the now famous image of the woman screaming, begging for information on her son, is not one that was created by Hollywood.

On March 8, a Boeing 777 of Malaysia Airlines weighing over 750,000 pounds lost communication with satellites and air traffic control while traveling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. For three weeks now, the plane has been missing. Although to date, no debris definitively related to the plane has been found, on March 24, the unhopeful fate of the passengers was confirmed. With great regret, the Malaysian prime minister publicly announced, “All lives are lost.”

Within hours of the plane’s disappearance, it came to the attention of the media that two passengers on board had stolen passports. The accusations of an attempted terrorist attack began immediately, along with other theories that the plane vanished into a black hole, that aliens captured the plane and are now holding it hostage on a faraway planet and that the pilot purposely sabotaged the flight. The idea of a mere technical problem was unimaginable; its straightforwardness made it uninteresting and, even more, its simplicity made it a fear that it could happen again, that it could happen to any of us.

When we indifferently question the logistics of what occurred and when we fabricate theories to replace the truth or fill a void, we distance ourselves from our emotions. We mask our fear with better, more entertaining stories because the one that is true is the one we don’t want to face.

According to an article from The New York Times, entitled “The Persistence of Conspiracy Theories,” from April 2011, “It is human nature to want to construct a narrative to resolve anxieties, to be drawn to mystery or the perception of it.”

Our fascination with the disappearance of Flight MH370 sheds light on our obsession with mystery, death and conspiracy. Our intrinsic need to know — to have an explanation and validation for how and why things occur — prevents us from coping with ambiguity and with unanswerable questions. As human beings, we are absolutely terrified by the unknown. And death is the biggest unknown there is.

We have created stories that Princess Diana’s accidental death was planned by the British special forces, that President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was in fact not the sole doing of Lee Harvey Oswald, but was in collaboration with the FBI, and that the AIDS virus was purposely created to kill innocent people.

In the same article from The New York Times, author Kate Zernike wrote, “The strong embrace of conspiracy theories is also embedded in the American experience. A fear of enemies — real and imagined, internal and external — defined those who forged this country. A place created as God’s country was bound to see the subversions of Satan behind every uncertain turn.”

Our fear of death prevents us from accepting reality, and our need to have answers makes us create a plot that never happened. But the stories we invent merely give us a false facade of safety to stand behind.

Views expressed in the opinion pages represent the opinions of the columnists.