The catastrophic destruction of any passenger jet always hits a hot nerve of modern existential angst. The reality of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, shot down while en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with around 300 passengers and crew, is infinitely worse. The speed with which both the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists denied responsibility — and accused each other of being the guilty party — tells us something critical. The course of history turns on events like these. How blame gets apportioned can swing the fate of nations.
In a week already full of terrible reports from Gaza, the news Thursday morning that a Ukrainian government official had accused the separatists of shooting down MH17 provoked a different kind of gasp. The ongoing horror in Palestine confirms a preexisting sense of intractable despair, but it doesn’t tell us anything that we don’t already know about the Mideast. What just happened in the Ukraine signifies a new morass of uncertainty and inevitable escalation. The geopolitical consequences are incalculable.
Vladimir Putin’s political future, the survival of Ukraine as a state, the question of whether other European nations and the United States get drawn more deeply into the conflict — anything and everything seems possible. As recently as Wednesday, the U.S. had announced sanctions on Russia tied to its military support of the Ukrainian rebels. As the relevant parties fight over who is to blame for the destruction of MH17, Cold War tensions are relentlessly heating up.
How that plays out, again, is anyone’s guess. But here’s what we do know: An already anxious world is sure to get more jittery. We’ve seen what happens after previous shocks to the global nervous system. 9/11 changed the psychology of a nation — changed our laws, the way we travel, the way our government spies on its citizens. We didn’t feel safe, so we became paranoid, with lasting effect.
The destruction, in a regional military conflict, of a commercial jetliner that might have included a number of Americans and Europeans as its passengers will further stoke close-to-the-breaking-point paranoia. Adding a fully invigorated neo-Cold-War showdown to American anxieties about terrorism could further inflame nationalist fevers on both sides of the Atlantic. We gasp, because our world just lurched again, and the only thing we can be sure of is that there are more lurches to come.
* * *
It’s easy to understand why, for many people, the initial reaction to MH17′s destruction was “oh shit.” It feels like an inflection point, like a moment when the narrative shifts. Thursday afternoon, a remarkable infographic of international flights that had suddenly shifted their flight patterns to avoid Ukrainian space provided a disturbing illustration of global panic. Yes, we knew the Ukraine was a hot zone before today, but now it’s something else. Now, in the minds of observers around the world, it is a charnel house.
Of course, we don’t know for sure that this moment is of actual world-historical import. When the archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot by Gavrilo Princip, no one knew that the most horrific global military conflict the world had ever seen would follow. When Lyndon Johnson took advantage of (or orchestrated) a naval battle with the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin to convince Congress to authorize an escalated military effort in Southeast Asia, no one could have guessed that the ensuing war would lead to his own downfall. As we watched the Twin Towers collapse, did we think that our own civil liberties would soon come under assault? Did we imagine that 13 years later we would be taking off our shoes to go through security lines?
Let’s game this out. For international air travelers, there’s a new source of terror — the possibility that they might be purposely targeted not just by hijackers or suicidal terrorists but randomly fired upon by missiles from a conflict zone. For Vladimir Putin, there’s the clear prospect that his reckless support of the separatists has blown back on him in the worst way. For Barack Obama, it’s yet another disintegrating international catastrophe with no easy answers.
The Ukraine will call for more Western support. Senator John McCain is already on the record calling for the U.S. to “react in stringent fashion” if “Ukrainian rebels” are found responsible. But there’s scant evidence that Putin has ever been willing to back down, no matter how badly he’s boxed in, so any U.S. escalation will surely be met by a Russian hard line.
Commercial airliners will seek their own solutions. No-fly zones will proliferate. Israel, for its part, is supposed to be equipping its commercial airliners with anti-missile systems; imagine that, a future in which the skies are filled with weaponized passenger jets? That future is almost now.
Remember the end of history? The triumph of capitalist liberal democracies over the failed socialist experiment? The deeper we get into the 21st century the more insecure that supposed victory feels. A more terrified world is a world that justifies more surveillance, more hatred towards the alien other, more controls on movement and association.
History doesn’t end. It staggers forward, fitfully, like a drunk bully. And maybe that explains the sick feeling that accompanied the news from Ukraine. Three hundred innocent people dying is horror enough. The certainty that the consequences of this event will lead us places we don’t want to go is even worse.