Saturday, July 19, 2014
A civilian passenger plane carrying 290 passengers — men, women, and children — was shot out of the sky by an anti-aircraft missile. The downed flight was a commercial airliner flying a route that had been approved by international aviation authorities.
All 290 passengers on the airliner died. As the news broke, heart-breaking photos of the wreckage soon appeared in the international news media — horrific pictures of dozens of bodies of people of all ages, along with debris of personal effects.
No, I am not here describing this week’s tragic incident in Ukraine involving Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 and killing 298 people. Instead, I am recalling the 1988 shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the U.S.S. Vincennes, which resulted in a nearly identical loss of life. Iran Air Flight 655 carrying 290 passengers had departed from Bandar Abbas International Airport and was traveling to Dubai when it was shot down by an American naval missile system over the Persian Gulf.
To be sure, there are differences between the 1988 Iran Air 655 incident and this week’s Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 incident. The U.S.S. Vincennes had been attacked in the Persian Gulf by Iranian gunboats and was engaged in combat when the radar system picked up an aircraft coming toward the ship from Iran. Notwithstanding the exigent circumstances, however, the difference between a slow-moving Airbus and a supersonic military fighter jet should have been apparent, and the radar crew failed to recognize that the Iran Air flight was climbing at the time and not on an attack path. The United States did take immediate responsibility for the downing of the Iran Air flight and paid compensation to the families of the victims (although the federal government successfully invoked sovereign immunity to defeat tort lawsuits filed in United States courts on behalf of the survivors).
But, at the end of each sad day, nearly 300 innocent men, women, and children died horribly because an insufficiently trained military unit acted rashly on the basis of limited information. Each was the result of an atrocious error by an irresponsible military force. The captain of another U.S. ship present at the time in the Persian Gulf said that the shooting down of Iran Air 655 “marked the horrifying climax” to a pattern of over-aggressive behavior by the commandor of the Vincennes.
Importantly, the lesson is not a new one and this week's tragic loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 shows that it has not yet been learned around the world. Nor was the Iran Air 655 tragedy in 1988 the only other such episode. In 2001, Ukraine military shot down a Russian passenger plane, and in 1983, a Soviet fighter jet destroyed Korean Airlines Flight 007.
We need not make the error of characterizing the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 episode as “terrorism” to insist that those responsible be held accountable for this episode and that use of military force must be carefully constrained to protect civilians. A “terrorist” deliberately targets civilian populations to provoke fear and chaos in the populace. The intercepted communications between Russian military advisors and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine make plain that they thought they were shooting down a Ukrainan military transport plane and were shocked to discover that the downed plane was a civilian aircraft, wondering aloud why a civilian airliner was flying in a war zone. Nonetheless, we can rightly deplore this episode as involving criminal negligence—perhaps even the level of recklessness that would qualify as manslaughter under Anglo-American definition of homicide.
A responsible nation should never entrust a military system capable of such mass destruction of innocent life to other than a carefully trained team of regular military professionals and even then should insist that every precaution be in place and hesitancy demanded before such a system is employed. Given that the American military has not repeated that episode in the last quarter-century, that immediate lesson may have been learned in the aftermath of the U.S.S. Vincennes. Today, Russia should immediately withdraw such weapons systems from the rag-tag bunch of militias and criminal gangs that Russia has incited to violence in eastern Ukraine.
We live in a broken world. A violent response to frustrations, even if purportedly limited, too often explodes into far greater atrocities and much greater loss of life than anyone intended at the outset. Those of us who believe that international responsibilities do sometimes call for use of American military force nonetheless should be sobered by an episode such as this and be reminded that our own military too has made such unconscionable mistakes in the past.
Let us all continue to pray for a world in which not only innocents traveling high in the skies but all people may know peace and personal safety. And let us today hold in our hearts and prayers the victims of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 and their families, including Sacred Heart Sister Philomene Tiernan, a member of the staff at Kincoppal-Rose Bay School, a Catholic girls' school in Sydney who lost her life on that flight, while remembering as well the souls lost 25 years ago in the Persian Gulf on Iran Air 655.