MH17 is not the first civilian airliner to have been destroyed in flight by weapons of war. There have been accidental shoot-downs before: the Korean Airlines disaster of 1983, the Iranian Airlines shoot down of 1988, destroyed by Soviet and US missiles respectively. There have been deliberate acts of terrorism, as occurred on board a Pan Am flight over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in December 1988.
But MH17 is a disaster of the digital age, a tragedy happening in real time, in which every twist and turn of an unfolding crisis is relayed on 24-hour TV and online media, minute by minute, to the entire planet. Within hours of the first news reports we were listening to recordings said to be of the perpetrators and their handlers, describing how ‘there are corpses everywhere’. We were watching video clips made at the scene of burning wreckage and smoke plumes.
And then, following the sudden horror of the aircraft’s destruction has come the obscenely drawn-out spectacle of drunken and abusive armed men refusing to allow full international access to the scene of the crime. Images of charred metal, luggage and documents, of broken and burned human bodies left unattended and uncared for, flood social media.
The pain of the bereaved in these circumstances is unimaginable, and one wonders how long the world can stand by in the face of what Tony Abbott calls “unacceptable, intolerable” behaviour.
The tragedy has touched us like few before it, because we have been made spectators, witnesses to an atrocity and its aftermath. In a previous age only hardened foreign correspondents were likely to confront such scenes, sending their dispatches back to their newsrooms where they would be sanitised or censored to make them tolerable for family viewing.
Now, we see before us on our TV screens, or on Twitter feeds and other social media, evidence of the bestiality and arrogance of these so-called warriors, and their frightening contempt for human life.
To rage and despair at this theatre of cruelty is natural, as are angry calls for action. But before we lose all faith in the capacity of the international order to deal with the situation in a way which preserves the dignity of the dead, it should be remembered that the same media saturation which shocks us with its forensic detail and viscerality throws an unforgiving searchlight on the crime.
There is no proof as yet, and there may never be, but there is very little doubt about who did this, and who is now seeking to cover it up before an outraged world. The perpetrators are exposed and visible. In a globally connected digital media space, there is no hiding place.
An earlier tragedy – the Korean Airlines disaster of 1983 – began the process which led to Gorbachev, glasnost and perestroika, and ultimately the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then, at the height of the Cold War, the military of the USSR denied all responsibility for shooting down a civilian jumbo jet over Russian territory.
There was no internet to debate and challenge their account, virtually no 24 hour news coverage to pore over the details (CNN was only three years old), no global public sphere to disseminate information and commentary around the world at the speed of light. There were no free and independent media in the USSR. The Soviets then could control the information environment in a way that is impossible for the Russians now.
Putin has in recent years dragged the Russian media back to the days of Soviet authoritarianism, and as was reported in The Conversation, the Russian public are being fed a diet of blatant untruths and absurd conspiracy theories.
But here’s the thing. We see it, this effort to deny the undeniable; we know about it, and it merely adds to global disdain for the state which allowed this tragedy to occur. These are difficult days for the bereaved of MH17, but perhaps they will find a little comfort in knowing that the world bears a new kind of witness to their grief and anger.
Brian McNair is the author of Glasnost, Perestroika and the Soviet Media (Routledge, 1991).