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The Terror of Ignorance

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 along with its 239 passengers and crew has dominated recent news coverage.  Hope for their survival has dimmed, and my thoughts and prayers are with the relatives of those on board.  This incident is getting so much attention, though, not only because it involves a large commercial airplane and potential large loss of life, but additionally because of the mystery of what happened.  There is apparently no trace of the plane; an oil slick and debris in the sea were apparently not related, and there was no mayday or other indication from the pilots of something going wrong (at least, not that’s been reported).  Some sort of accident is possible, but the revelation that two passengers were traveling with stolen passports makes it quite plausible that this was a terrorist attack.  Given that likelihood, I would like to suggest that this would be a uniquely devious and disturbing form of terrorism due to our current ignorance concerning what happened, by whom and why.

            By definition, terrorists aim to instil fear in a population.  And as H.P. Lovecraft observed, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”  There is indeed something particularly disturbing and frightening about a threat of unknown origins.  I couldn’t find evidence from behavioral psychology to back this up (maybe there should be some more studies on this), but it is quite an intuitive notion.  The unknown is utilized to great effect by writers like Lovecraft, at any rate, as well as countless horror film directors.  Seeing a character attacked by a jealous lover may be off-putting, but seeing that character attacked by a masked figure of unknown origins, jumping from the shadows – that’s scary.

            An attack that is both terrible and mysterious, then, is doubly frightening.  Not only are innocent people being targeted, but we don’t know why or how.  We can’t tell who they’re targeting, so we all have reason to worry that we’ll be on the list.  We can’t tell what happened, so we won’t know how to avoid more attacks in the future.  In a purely emotional sense – like with the masked figure – it is just more viscerally frightening when evil has no face.  And even if we eventually see the perpetrators’ photographs on the news, our ignorance concerning the precise fate of flight 370 will continue to gnaw on the minds of millions.  The loss of those on board is terrible and tragic; it is made even worse by our ignorance concerning the situation.

            It might seem odd for terrorists to try and keep us in ignorance (there has been no credible claim of responsibility yet).  We couldn’t be cowed by the attack into conceding some political goal if we don’t know the perpetrators.  But only 14% of terrorist attacks come with credible claims of responsibility.  Sometimes responsibility is implicit, but other times it may be that the infliction of death, destruction and terror on a group serves as an end in itself.  And given that lack of information surrounding the event makes the terror worse, keeping us in the dark may well be the perpetrators’ goal.

            This is a developing story, and all this may well be mistaken.  Again, it could be an accident (maybe it was just a coincidence some of the passengers had stolen passports).  It also could be that we’ll soon discover the who, how and why – there are an immense amount of resources being poured into the investigation, and potential perpetrators might well eventually decide to make a credible claim.  But at the moment, the event is serving not only to bereave hundreds of families of their loved ones, but also induce a broad sense of fear and anxiety in the population in general.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Hold your horses. We don’t even know IF the disappearance of this plane had any connection with terrorism. When there is something to go on then perhaps there will be something to talk about.

    1. True! When I’d made the post, terrorism was the leading theory, but now accident seems more and more likely (at least, the stolen passports look like they were indeed just a coincidence). Such are the perils of posting on developing stories.

  2. As H.P. Lovecraft said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” The scariest part about this unfortunate incident is that no one but the passengers on that plane know what happened. With different theories being thrown around as to what happened, fear of it happening to oneself of course will occur. But in my opinion, ignorance is not found in the who, how and why but in believing that every disaster that occurs on this planet could happen to yourself. Accidents occur, and this more than likely is an accident – then again terrorism could be a plausible theory as well. Fear is humanities biggest set back, and when people start learning one by one that not everyone in the world has bad intentions or bad luck, then maybe the terror in terrorism will slowly fade to nothing but something we used to know and people will find that sometimes taking the risk can be very worth it.

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