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What Happened to MH370? A Look at the Latest Theories

UPDATE, March 15, 2014: The mystery surrounding Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 took a sinister turn Saturday, when Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak confirmed that the plane had been deliberately flown off course. Authorities have now opened a criminal investigation into the plane's disappearance, with security personnel reportedly focusing new attention on the plane's pilot and co-pilot. The prime minister's announcement stems from new satellite information that suggests the jet flew for at least seven hours after veering off course, likely on a flight path that runs from northern Thailand towards Kazakhstan. Another possible flight path runs from Jakarta along the southern Indian Ocean. While Razak said that all possibilities are still being explored, CBS News quoted an unnamed Malaysian official who said that "it is conclusive" that the plane was hijacked.

If the plane was hijacked, it may have been part of a larger plot choreographed by an al Qaeda affiliate in Malaysia. The Telegraph reported Saturday that a British al Qaeda informant claimed to have been complicit in an alleged terrorist plot planned by "four to five" Malaysian jihadists. The informant made the comments while testifying in New York last week during the trial of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden's son-in-law. He said that one of the Malaysian men was a pilot and that the group planned to hijack a plane in Kuala Lumpur and use it in a terrorist act. Badat's testimony came before the disappearance of MH370.

Original Post: It's a general rule of thumb (Occam's razor, to be exact) that, when evaluating theories, the one with the fewest assumptions is most often correct. Wild and outlandish theories are almost always wrong -- except when they're not.

But it's hard to make sense of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 -- there doesn't seem to be a simple explanation. There's the absence of wreckage, despite an unprecedentedly large international search effort. There's the fact that the plane's transponder went silent and the plane effectively disappeared along a stretch of its flight path where radar coverage is spotty. But then there's also evidence that the plane may have continued flying for hours after it went silent: It may have been picked up on radar an hour later over the Strait of Malacca, and may have continued flying for another three hours after that according to satellite signals that may have originated from the plane's engines.

A classified assessment by the U.S. and Malaysian governments that leaked to CNN on Friday evening suggests that the plane likely crashed outside the current search area, east of India in the Bay of Bengal, or west of Indonesia in the Indian Ocean. It may also have fluctuated in altitude after disappearing, climbing above its maximum approved altitude of 43,100 feet before plummeting to 23,000 feet, according to the New York Times.

But until the plane is found and more is known about what happened to Flight 370, more complicated (and less likely) theories will continue to circulate, ranging from plausible-but-unlikely to downright out-of-this-world. Here are a few of the latest:

The plane landed somewhere west of Malaysia
The search for MH 370 has frequently been framed as a search for wreckage (like the debris spotted in Chinese satellite imagery in the South China Sea, which has since been ruled out). But what if there is no wreckage? What if the plane is intact? Investigators are considering that the flight may have been deliberately directed off course in order to land discretely somewhere "with the intention of using it later for another purpose."

It seems a touch far-fetched, but the plane's disappearance -- at just the right moment to go undetected -- has suggested to some that it may have been intentional. Jeff Wise at Slate suggests that the pilots could have waited until they reached an area where radar coverage is spotty, turned off their transponders, and then adjusted course -- possibly making a sharp turn west and dropping in altitude to fly under the radar.

The plane could have been flown to an airstrip somewhere off the beaten path -- but where? Depending on how loaded down the plane is, a Boeing 777 requires between 3,800 and 5,200 feet of runway to land. The plane's apparent trajectory in the Strait of Malacca has investigators looking at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, but there are only four airports in the Indian island chain, two of which are operated by the Indian military. But that's not to say the plane might not have set down at a long airstrip somewhere else. (Myanmar has two dozen airports that do not use major carriers, there are another half-dozen listed in Sumatra, not to mention any unlisted airstrips. This map of former U.S. airfields in Vietnam, many of which have since been abandoned, gives a sense of just how many unlisted airstrips there may be in the region.)

There's still the matter of what to do with the 239 people and the Boeing 777, but there's an obvious motive: money. The Strait of Malacca is a major transit point for trade passing between the Indian and Pacific Oceans -- and as a result, it has been an attractive region for pirates. If pirates got control of the plane, they may try to ransom the passengers or resell the plane for tens of millions of dollars.

Someone deliberately flew the plane to the Middle East
After Malaysia's air force chief announced Wednesday that military radar had plotted the plane hundreds of miles west of its planned route, the possibility of foul play reared its head again. Further fueling speculation that Flight 370 may have been hijacked, Reuters reported Friday that the plane's westward path followed a flight corridor commonly used by commercial flights en route to the Middle East and Europe. Citing unnamed sources, the report stated that, according to its last position as plotted by military radar, the jet was heading towards the Andaman Islands, putting it on a flight path known as P628, which carriers use to get from Southeast Asia to Europe.

James Kallstrom, a former assistant director of the FBI, speculated that the plane might have been hijacked by terrorists for use as a weapon later. "You draw that arc and you look at countries like Pakistan ... and you see the plane landing somewhere and (people) repurposing it for some dastardly deed down the road," he told CNN's Jake Tapper on Thursday. "I mean, that could happen." But then again, it's not easy to hide a 777, and investigators have said it is doubtful the plane would have the fuel to make it past India, or that it could have made it that far without being detected by radar.

The military shot it down
The news that Malaysia's military had failed to notify the public of radar signals believed to have come from the missing flight ignited rumors among Chinese citizens that the military had mistakenly identified the plane as a threat and shot it down. The rumors implied, of course, a cover-up. Malaysian Ambassador to China Iskandar Sarudin refuted the rumors on Thursday, saying that, while the plane was indeed detected on radar, it was never deemed a threat.

Such an incident wouldn't be unprecedented, however. In 1988, a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Vincennes, misidentified a commercial Airbus A300 en route to Dubai as a fighter jet and, during a skirmish with Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf, fired two missiles at the airliner, killing 290 people on board. A few years earlier, a Korean Airlines flight strayed into Soviet airspace en route to Beijing and was shot down by Soviet fighter jets. Later, Soviet pilot Col. Gennadi Osipovitch told CNN that he "wondered if it was a civilian aircraft ... but I had no time to think."

One, or both, of the pilots committed suicide
This theory, like the preceding one, has a historical precedent. In 1997, SilkAir Flight 185 took off from Indonesia with 97 passengers. Less than an hour into the flight, the plane dove into the Musi River in Sumatra, killing everyone on board. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the plane's captain flew the aircraft into the river.

Naturally, parallels are being drawn between SilkAir Flight 185 and and Malaysia Air Flight 370. On Friday, the Associated Press quoted a member of the Australian and International Pilots Association, Mike Glynn, as saying that pilot suicide is the likeliest possibility in this case. "A pilot rather than a hijacker is more likely to be able to switch off the communications equipment,'' he told the AP, suggesting that the pilot(s) disabled the plane's equipment before flying the plane into the ocean.

MOHDRASFAN/AFP/Getty Images

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Why the Media Should Stop Talking About the "Worst Places" in the World

Mother Jones published a piece on Thursday with the headline, "You Thought It Was Tough Being Gay in Uganda. ‘It's Hell in Nigeria.'"

This is just the latest example of what has become one of the media's favorite ways to talk about the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people around the world: saying "X Country is the Worst." For proof of popularity, just Google "the worst place in the world to be gay" and click through the many pages on offer. Or consider the following taste of what's out there:

"MAPS: The Best And Worst Places To Live if You're Gay" (From Upworthy, just in case "you" were considering relocating to Saudi Arabia or Sudan)

"The World's Worst Place to be Gay" (A BBC documentary on Uganda, which seems to get the "worst place" label more than any other country because of its recently enacted, and awful, anti-gay law)

This framing isn't limited to LGBT issues, either. Plenty of outlets have labeled countries the worst for women:

"Afghanistan worst place in the world for women, but India in top five" (the Guardian, making sure you don't get the wrong idea about India)

 "The Best and Worst Places to Be a Woman" (Buzzfeed, undoubtedly thrilled to find a way to squeeze complicated sex and gender issues into a list)

It's time to retire with the "worst place" frame, for a host of reasons.

First, saying a country is the worst for a particular group of people assumes that pretty much everyone in that group has the same lived experiences: all gay people in Uganda, for instance, or all women in Afghanistan. Problem being, people's circumstances, as we know, vary widely based on factors like income, education, ethnicity, and whether they live in rural or urban areas. So in countries with rampant homophobia and repressive laws, not every LGBT person endures the same type, level, or frequency of terrible things. Similarly, in countries with relatively progressive laws pertaining to LGBT rights, things can be terrible for some people; Rachel Aviv's excellent 2012 New Yorker article on homeless LGBT youth in the Big Apple, entitled "Netherland," is a reminder of this fact.

In short, it is dehumanizing and ultimately unproductive when the media conflate people's experiences under national banners of "good" or "bad." Conflation hides important nuances within different societies -- nuances that very well could be the keys to crafting better policies pertaining to human rights and social welfare and targeting them at the people most in need.

A second problem is that the frame triggers a sort of race to the bottom, or a search for a scoop on the most terrible of terrible places. The Mother Jones headline, for instance, implies, "You've been reading about Uganda -- but wait! Your attention is misplaced!" This instructs readers (and, depending on the outlet, policymakers as well) to look away from some injustices, in favor of others that they're told are worse. But shouldn't reporters (and editors) committed to shining a light on inequality and suffering be concerned about injustices everywhere? There seems to be little that is useful about telling readers to weigh abuses on the basis of borders: that the beating of gay men is somehow more odious in Nigeria than it is in Uganda -- or in any other country. 

Third, in saying that a place is the worst in which to be a certain type of person, there is a not-so-subtle implication that an element of choice is involved: that, if you're a woman, you really shouldn't live in Afghanistan. It's also hard to shake the weird parallels with travel guides: "best beaches," "worst hotels," "worst places to have a vagina."

Problem being, the vast majority of people on earth don't get to choose where they live (nor are they reading this media coverage). As a result, the element of choice twists into one of separation, making readers thankful that they don't live in one of the "worst" places, and pitying those who do. Once again, this dehumanizes and detaches; readers look at ratings and rankings and labels as things that have little to do with them. The "worst" is almost always "the other."

(There are undoubtedly other reasons the frame is bad, but these three are among the most glaring.)

To be sure, many of the articles and headlines in question draw from studies by NGOs, academic institutions, or polling organizations that seek to categorize countries based on whether governments do deplorable things like ban same-sex marriage or fail to criminalize the rape of women by their husbands. In other words, the media aren't coming up with idea all by themselves, though they do often take complex findings -- such as the size of the gender gap in different countries -- and slap best/worst labels on them.

Moreover, distinguishing trends is important for any sort of policymaking and advocacy. And the media need principles and structures that help organize complex ideas in articles for readers whose time is limited and whose attention is pulled in various directions. (So as not to act above the fray, Foreign Policy has used the "worst place" frame.)

Yet this particular frame, so ubiquitous now, woefully reduces trends to shadows of their real selves. It has become an injustice in its own right: a way of telling important stories about some of the world's biggest problems, challenges, and abuses that only renders those stories incomplete.

Saying a place is the worst is ... well, the worst. So it's time to stop.  

ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Images