On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, as I drove home, I gazed with skepticism at the long lines of people gassing up their cars. Among the rumors going around that day was that American oil and gasoline supplies would be cut off. That turned out, as I suspected, not to be true. My daughter called that night and asked if I thought she should leave the city where she lived. There was a the rumor going around that, since there was a nearby oil tank “farm,” it would be a high value target to those attacking our nation. While I had a real sense that nobody was coming to blow up those oil tanks, I also knew she’d feel more secure if she took her cat and dog and stayed with a friend that night. As it turned out, the rumors about the tank farm were also untrue.I’m the guy who doesn’t buy into scams and rumors, even when our nation is under attack. Regarding 9-11, my intuition from the beginning was that those who conducted the attack had a fairly limited plan. They had no ability to take over the entire country or destroy all the potential “soft targets” in our land. They just wanted to terrorize us and disrupt our lives to maximum extent possible with the relatively limited resources they possessed.
At this moment, however — as a person who is always skeptical about alarms, rumors and conspiracy theories — I feel the need to echo a warning. I have a quite rational fear about what may have happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and what may happen to us as a result.
I am writing this blog on the afternoon of the Ides of March, 2014. At this writing the current supposition about MA 370 is that it ran out of fuel as it flew, fell into the Indian Ocean and sank. While it would mean 279 people died tragically, I really hope that scenario is true, because most of the alternatives possibilities are much worse. My fondest hope is that the concerns I’m unpacking here are completely unfounded.
Like so many others who have watched this unfolding mystery with curiosity, I pretty much decided several days ago that it wasn’t mechanical failure but human intervention that caused the flight to vanish. If you consider the manner of the jet’s disappearance, it clearly supports the idea that a plan was in place to make a plane go missing at a time and in a place where it’s absence would be difficult to detect and tracking it would be next to impossible: 1) flying long after dark, 2) shutting off communication devices systematically, 3) turning abruptly and flying into an area where there would be little civilian tracking available, 4) altering altitude several times—which would among other things make satellite tracking more difficult. Ultimately it seems quite possible the hijacker flew out across the vast, deep Indian Ocean to make it appear that it crashed there. If that was a ruse—the way everything else the hijacker did was a ruse—then it’s still working: a dozen navies are scouring the seas for a jet that I think probably never hit the water.
As I was trying to piece various possibilities together last night, I read a chilling comment at the end of a news article dealing with the flight’s change in altitude. The strange jump up to 45,000 feet, I learned, would make its fuel last longer and would make it more difficult for satellites to track. However the real reason for this dangerous change in altitude, according to the comment, would be to kill the passengers. Soaring to 45,000 feet and depressurizing the cabin would freeze and suffocate the passengers. Even if the famous buttercup airbags deployed, those in the cabin would have at most twenty minutes of air. Those in the cockpit would have substantially more air as well as protection from the frigid temperatures.
An eerie awareness descended on me as I began to put together some of the things I had heard (that had not been discredited). We know the plane did not come apart catastrophically. We also know that passengers these days are savvy enough to try to establish contact from endangered planes and also are more than willing to take on potential hijackers. Did no one on the plane have a satellite phone? In the days following the disappearance, passengers’ phones rang—indicating they were viable, but none were answered. Why no news from the passengers? Perhaps it’s because they suffocated swiftly at 45,000 feet. Once that occurred, any hijackers would not have to worry about being rushed or having to care for traumatized people.
Of course the old saying is, “a dead hostage is useless.” Wouldn’t it defeat the purposes of an air pirate to kill those he has kidnapped? Wouldn’t those potentially paying ransom want assurances that the passengers were alive and unharmed? Given the extensive ongoing search for the jet, wouldn’t kidnappers hasten to make contact with authorities and consummate a ransom deal before their whereabouts were discovered? Since the answer to all those questions is “yes,” then it seems logical to assume that this is not an act of air piracy.
If the hijackers didn’t want the passengers, what did they want? They wanted the plane.
Those who took MA 370 have demonstrated with awful clarity that they know how to fly it, how to manipulate all its systems, how to avoid radar detection and how to distract the foremost experts in commercial jet avionics. If the hijacker or hijackers are not at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, then it seems to me we must admit they have been two steps ahead of those pursuing them from the very beginning. In order to catch up, then, it seems to me we should ask where this journey ultimately might be leading.
Let’s start by asking why would they want the plane? My guess is they want to turn it into a single use weapon, one that can travel up to 7000 miles at 600 miles an hour and blend in with other aircraft (whose flight paths and travel times seem to be known to the hijacker). Only, what can you do with just one jet? Well, not far north of the area where the flight disappeared are a number of former Soviet republics and a couple other nations that possess nuclear weapons. I think it’s possible that this plane is being fitted with a nuclear device.
So, just for the sake of argument, if you were the sort of person who would hijack a jetliner and kill all the passengers aboard it, and if you had a nuclear bomb and high-flying way to deliver it, where would you detonate it? If you wanted to obliterate Israel, you could blow it up there. Or you could take out any major European capital. After 9-11 and its aftermath, however, I’m just paranoid enough to think that the United States might be the most tantalizing target of all.
Where in the US would you strike with a nuclear device? As 9-11 demonstrated, you can demolish the financial heart of the nation and the American economy pretty much keeps on percolating. So I find myself wondering if those with that sort of weapon might be more likely to strike the nation’s capital. A single nuclear weapon detonated at the worst possible moment has the potential to decimate or eliminate the entire elected leadership of our nation—and like the passengers on MA 370—they might never see it coming. Additionally, an unforeseen nuclear strike on Washington could turn irreplaceable artifacts, documents and facilities to dust, contaminating the surrounding area and making it uninhabitable in the process.
I’ve left out the worst result of a nuclear strike on any major city: the loss of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. And that brings me to the most ironic part of this nightmare scenario: there are at least a couple places in this world where our nation is hated because of drone strikes that allegedly have taken the lives of innocent civilians. I have to ask myself if those who might possess stolen a Boeing 777 and may have turned it into a flying atomic bomb might also consider the sudden death of innocent American citizens from the sky a sort of ironic turnabout.
Again, I would love to be wrong about all this supposition, though nothing yet has said to me that it isn’t entirely possible and quite plausible. As noted, if this scenario is transpiring, then those conducting it are ruthless, clever and competent. As said above, these folks, like the 9-11 attackers, just want to terrorize us and disrupt our lives to maximum extent possible with the relatively limited resources they possessed.
What do we have going for us in trying to ferret out and stop such an attack? Time, maybe. We know that it has taken terrorists a certain amount of time to ready and carry out their plans in the past. With so many people searching for the plane, however, one might assume the hijackers will act as swiftly as possible. Technology is also on the side of the civilized nations here. Avionic experts have a global grid of multiple varieties of surveillance and communication that might be tweaked and tasked with detecting this plane should it ever take to the air again. We also have civilization on our side. Much as we may detest certain other nations and their leaders, it’s quite clear that civilized human beings would cooperate in deterring an unprovoked nuclear attack.
In his book The Sum of All Fears, the late Tom Clancy wrote of an unprovoked nuclear attack as being the inspiration for his title. The thing is, that was just a fanciful story with no actual basis in fact. What’s worse than a make-believe story and worse than worrisome rumors, however, is a horrific nightmare scenario that might really occur—it’s like the sum of all our nightmares turning out to be true. I hope you’ll join me in praying that this awful dream never comes true, and that those entrusted with the safety of ours and other nations have been thinking about these possibilities as well.