Empathy and MH370

March 18, 2014

I met up with Ankur last week, and inevitably the case of the missing Boeing 777 came up. Ankur asked me if I knew anyone on the plane, and then immediately looked abashed.

“Sorry,” he said. “That must be really offensive. Not like I know everyone who flies American.”

I wasn’t offended at all. For one thing, Malaysia is a lot smaller than the United States. For another I wouldn’t put it past my family and friends back home to know some one who knows some one who was married to or used to go out with or was roommates with some one who knew some one on that plane. Petaling Jaya is very small big town.

As it happens, I don’t know anyone on MH370. But I know people just like them. The captain of that plane could have been a friend’s goofy dad, or one of my mum’s patients, or my tuition teacher’s husband. He likes gadgets and gear. So does my dad. He supports the opposition party. So do most people in my town. He’s Muslim. So are folks I grew up with. None of those people would have taken the plane down, or to the Taliban, or to Mars.

It’s easy to empathize when the person in question is one of your own. I live in New York now, and I get how 9/11 has rendered irrevocable damage to our ability to feel safe. But it still astounds me how some Americans fundamentally mistrust Muslims, and how when shit goes down this shows up not just on the garbage on Twitter but on the discussion on the front page of the New York Times.

This is the theory I’m buying. I realize that without clear facts, for us in the peanut gallery, this is just as speculative as the hijack/suicide/UFO theories abound. But at least my speculation comes from empathy and not fear, or worse – a thirst for something that Olivia Pope would fix (but IRL!!). Surely that’s a better place to start?

When I think of what’s worse than dying in an enclosed metal tube drifting inevitably out to the deep dark sea, I think it’s spending your final minutes doing the best you can, and having the world think the worst of you - or rather, the worst of a sloppy caricature painted by tabloids and the Twittersphere. I think it’s being your daughter or wife or friend who has to go on living with this.

I hope they find that plane soon.