Sunday 25 February 2018

The truth is not always stranger than fiction, but it can be much crueller than fantasy

A relative hears of crash in 2014
A relative hears of crash in 2014

Laurence Dodds in London

So that's it, then. After 16 months of waiting and hoping, but not knowing, beach cleaners on the French island of Reunion have found a chunk of debris which experts think is probably a piece of MH370.

Every year there are about 150 planes which crash. Not many of them stay vanished. Most are found quickly - within a day, or a week, or a month - while others might take years to locate. Only a small number stay unfound, and pass off the surface of the earth, joining DB Cooper and Lord Lucan in the realm of the pure myth.

As long as MH370 and its 239 passengers and crew remained in this realm, they could be anything anyone wanted them to be. The lack of evidence opened up a gap which people rushed to fill with their hopes, fears and obsessions. Not just the families of the victims, but also conspiracy theorists, both amateur and professional, who had a wild range of ideas about what really happened.

Some thought it had landed at the US air base on Diego Garcia as part of a CIA special operation. Some thought it had been hijacked and would return, bearing a stolen nuclear weapon, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Some even thought it was the same plane as the one shot down over Ukraine several months later. Some think it will one day turn up on the moon.

If the debris is confirmed as part of MH370 - and, of course, it still might not be - many of those people will give up; the mystery is over, the possibilities are closed down, and the plane is back on Earth. But not all of them will. In fact, I think a pretty big proportion of them will refuse to accept it.

We can already see this process playing out among the families. Some, exhausted by months of hope and disappointment, are simply reserving judgement. "There is no need to over-trust this information," said one relative, Jiang Hui. "We've been told so many times that there is new information but then nothing was found."

Others seem actively distrustful. "I won't believe anything until they find the passengers," said Cheng Liping. "One piece of wreckage doesn't mean anything." Jack Song told said: "Nobody believes it. Where are the other things - like the seats and the cargo?"

Of course, these people have every reason in the world to cling on to whatever hope they can. That's fair enough.

It's easier to believe that MH370 was stolen by a secretive elite than to accept that we may never know where it went

For the conspiracy theorists, it is more complicated. Humans often find it hard to accept that suffering can happen for stupid, mundane reasons - that great injustices or enormous tragedies might come about, not because of God's punishment, or even because of some evil fiend's deliberate design, but because people were bored, tired or didn't understand - or were too busy to care.

Even worse, we might never know exactly why 239 people were lost and are probably dead. Many psychologists trace belief in conspiracy theories to a desire for meaning and an aversion to meaninglessness.

Some people find it easier to believe that big, weird events are directed by some secret elite - even one which is infinitely powerful and hostile - than to believe that they happen randomly.

It's ironic that they pursue this desire for closure by strenuously keeping open the very emptiness which threatens them - dismissing anything which would close it and settle it in a manner which makes them uncomfortable. Thus the conspiracy theorists' frequent claim that they are "just asking questions" and just want "all the facts". As long as the mystery is open, anything could be true. Better to have a merciful void than a crushing certainty.

You may disagree with that specific analysis. But these theories would not have proliferated in the face of all contrary reason if they didn't fulfil some deep human need. That need won't go away just because of a press conference about a scrap of metal.

Not just a scrap: we could find the entire plane, all two hundred tonnes of it, resting at the bottom of the Indian ocean, with 239 people still in their seats, and there are some people who would keep on believing. The truth is not always stranger than fiction - but it's usually crueller than fantasy. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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