The Malaysia mystery isn't an episode of "Lost"

Remember that these are human lives we're talking about here -- 239 of them.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
March 18, 2014 10:28PM (UTC)
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(Reuters/Damir Sagolj)

Tragedies tend to erupt. They take the form of earthquakes and terrorist attacks or mass shootings. Even when the full measure of their devastation unfolds over the course of several days – like the excruciating drama that was the aftermath of Katrina – there's a narrative that makes a certain terrible sense. There's a way to mourn, a course of action to help the survivors.

But there's no such grim satisfaction to be had in the story of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. There's only a 10-day-old mystery, a story with no clear-cut heroes or villains or even, yet, officially recognized victims. As the drama of the flight, which disappeared on March 8, has unfolded, what began as a strange story that would surely yield evidence in a few hours has taken on a different life of its own. Because of its virtually unprecedented nature, it's hard to know how to talk about it. Here's a start, though. Whether you're a newscaster or a random person with a few thoughts you want to get off your chest on Facebook, just remember that these are human lives we're talking about here -- 239 of them.


As Australian journalist Peter Ryan noted a full week ago, the relentlessness of the news media cycle has been brutally illuminated in the wake of the Malaysia mystery. There's no closure, just an incessant barrage of "unhelpful speculation" that's "deepening the distress" of the friends and families of the passengers and crew aboard the flight.  You want a lack of new developments turned into vague, J.J. Abrams-esque entertainment? Take your pick of "9 crazy conspiracy theories" or the "6 craziest conspiracy theories" or "5 conspiracy theories" or the "10 big questions." Make sure some of them involve Pitbull or a dumb fake ad or an ill timed joke. Or you know, let's just do something on what Courtney Love has to say here, because she seems to have it all sussed out. There are enough timelines and interactive maps and theories to satisfy the hungriest of obsessives.

Disappearance stories always provoke strong reactions and reliable media and public fascination -- there's a longing to unravel them and find some kind of conclusion, even if it's a painful one. It's been nine years and the questions of what happened to Natalee Holloway still makes headlines; the vanishing of Michael Rockefeller over 50 years ago has been the subject of a new book and subsequent extensive media coverage just this month. But on a scale this grand, there are 239 missing persons stories now. There are the frustrated families threatening to go on a hunger strike until they have answers. There's the news frenzy to interpret a T-shirt the pilot once wore. There are the words of the girlfriend who's packed a change of clean clothes for when the man she calls her "soul mate" emerges, she believes, alive.

As CNN, in the midst of its full throttle coverage of everything else about the flight, noted this weekend, the story of Flight 370 is the story of parents and young children and spouses and friends. It's one that may never have a fully satisfying explanation, and it's definitely one that seems unlikely to have a good ending. And it's not about "crazy" conspiracy theories or sound bites from talking heads desperate to fill dead air. It's not an epic episode of Nancy Grace, a missing persons story with a cast of hundreds. It's just 239 men, women and children, lost somewhere over the water.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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