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War and Flight: Why planes are being attacked so often

Publication Date : 19-07-2014


It has been just a month and a week since the attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi.

When that happened on June 8, few in the world paid attention. Pakistan and its unceasing generation of catastrophes no longer give the world a pause; tragedies, perpetrated by terrorists or others are too frequent a contribution to the world.

Within Pakistan, people watched and wondered aghast; some were stuck inside the airport for the night long siege, others worried about taking future flights. Then like all worries in a land flush with anxiety, people moved on, feebly asking for accountability but expecting none.

The world was a bit more shocked on hearing the tragic news of the crash of Malaysian Airlines MH17 on July 17, 2014. The timing for one thing, was eerie. The day before, Wednesday July 16, the United States had imposed a new round of sanctions on Russia; targeting access of the country’s defence, financial and energy industries to the US market.

In doing so, the United States had been eager to make a point; that it was willing to take a hard line against Russia, even when its European allies were refusing to render similar scolding. The rest of the world was looking at the mess in Gaza or mourning the end of the FIFA World Cup and the news languished in lonely corners of the news cycle.

Then, Malaysian Airlines 17 was reported as having crashed over Donetsk, in the very region where pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian military have been going at it for months.

The plane had taken off from Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam and was en route to Kuala Lampur. There would be Europeans and even Americans on board; insuring that everyone would watch and everyone would care. Suddenly, a back-burner conflict in one corner of the world had drawn the attention of millions of others all over the globe.

Aeroplanes are vulnerable things; and the ease with which they can be brought down is never more visible than in the aftermath of a crash.

The war of narrative over this one began soon after the jet went down. The Ukrainian President blamed the Russians, whom he held responsible for taking the jet down. In return, Russia Today, the English Channel of Russian state-run media lobbed the blame at Ukraine, saying the Ukrainians had the capabilities to take down an aircraft flying at that altitude.

In the latest reports, Russian authorities were reported to be saying that rebels on site of the crash had already taken away the black box from the aircraft.

Before anything is known about the plane or the passengers; it is already known that the truth will perhaps never be known.

All of it explains, however, why airports and aeroplanes are particular targets in the wars of the present.

Starting with the fateful eleventh day in September thirteen years ago, they remain emblems that can begin world conflicts by drawing both the innocent and the instigators into a single circle.

It is no surprise therefore that the assailants who attacked Karachi airport had also planned at taking a plane hostage and blowing it up. The diverse constituencies that would have been implicated then would have magnified the mess and the casualties giving them the notoriety they craved.

The assailants that fired at the approaching plane at Peshawar Airport had probably made similar calculations.

Planes represent the ultimate soft targets in a world that is nearly completely immersed in conflict. Despite all the security measures, the taking off of shoes, the X-Ray machines and the extensive protocols, it seems that the skies continue to be a venue of war instead of a witnessing of wonder.

The miracle of flight, so delightful in its ability to represent human ingenuity; has in this sense been marred by human vengeance and bloodlust.

Once upon a time, looking up at the sky, at a flying plane was an opportunity to appreciate the magnificence of man; it has now been transfigured into a moment of dread; of the best in humanity under attack by the worst.

(Rafia Zakaria is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times, Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio)


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