Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

05 November 2015

Metrojet Flight 9268: the Price of Tyranny?


The tragic loss of 224 lives aboard a Russian flight from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg has the potential to become a politically transformational event. But to realize that potential, the global public—and especially the public in Egypt and Russia—must understand the cause of the disaster as a terrorist act.

That is why we may never know what actually happened.

We Yanks and Brits, among others, may be amazed and disheartened by what happens now. After any disaster involving aircraft, we are used to an immediate, thorough, and consummately professional investigation. Cost is never an object. Each investigation consumes all the necessary material, technical and intellectual resources of a great nation. While the process is not entirely public, the results and conclusions eventually are.

We are used, for example, to seeing every shard of a downed plane reassembled in a huge hangar and examined exhaustively by forensic experts, for months or for years, as long as necessary. We are used to seeing foreign experts summoned and involved in the process. All those who conduct the examination are specialized experts with no political role whatsoever, and therefore no axe to grind. There are no Karl Roves among them. They are like seasoned detectives at a crime scene: calm, professional, expert, and relentless.

We are not likely to see that same diligence and professionalism in the Sinai. Why? Because the two countries involved, Egypt and Russia, are tyrannies trying to disguise themselves as such. When they are not busy jailing and killing their own people to maintain “stability,” they are assiduously controlling the information to which their people have access.

Insofar as they are able, they also control information available to the outside world. We still have no verdict on the downing of MH Flight 17 in Eastern Ukraine, for example, because of what the Donyetskii separatists and their Russian backers did to and at the crash site. It was as if the local authorities had allowed a bunch of local gansters to stage a raucous days-long block party at the crime scene, taking away whatever “souvenirs” they wanted.

Just as Russia had no desire to let its people or the world know who shot down MH17, neither Egypt nor Russia has any wish for the world to know the real cause of Metrojet Flight 9268’s destruction.

It the cause was a mechanical failure or pilot error, it would reflect poorly on Russian aviation and tourism. Ditto for a fault in Russian security. If it was a defect in Egyptian security, it would reflect poorly on Egypt’s current tyranny, airports, tourism, and general security, as well as General El-Sisi’s supposed progress in his self-declared war on Islamists. And if it was a terrorist attack, it would cause the Egyptian and Russian public to begin to doubt that the natural consequences of El-Sisi’s and Putin’s confrontational policies are good for them. So the outcome most desired by the rulers of Egypt and Russia is to make the entire story disappear from the news quickly and without a trace, just like the victims who died.

In the beginning, there was just Israel and Palestine. From the “invention” of hijackings in the 1970s, the first acts of terrorism against aircraft targeted only Israelis. Slowly, inexorably, the terrorists’ bull’s eye widened to include us Yanks. Hijacking of American planes met increasingly stringent security measures. Then came Lockerbie and later 9/11. After the fact, we Yanks took in that the late bin Laden had declared jihad against us, the greatest superpower in human history.

Russians felt the sting of terrorism only more slowly and rarely. There was the slaughter of children in Beslan and the “hijacking” of the Nord-Ost Theater in Moscow. But those terrorist acts, apparently, were perpretrated by Chechens or their sympathizers. So Putin “pacified” Chechnyá—an effort that appears to have achieved at least partial success. But Chechnyá was and is a small, mountainous and isolated place, far from the millennial turmoil that is now engulfing the Middle East.

So Chechnyá taught Putin the wrong lesson. Wield a firm hand, the inveterate silovik thought, and stability will follow as day the night. And so he backed Assad, a silovik far more stupid and brutal than he. But in so doing, Putin hid behind Iran’s Shiite theocracy, Assad’s direct backer.

Now Putin has come out of hiding, putting his own Russian crews in charge of maintaining, servicing and directing, if not actually flying, the planes that mercilessly bomb Syrian civilians and rebels alike. “What could possibly happen to one of the world’s great superpowers?” he must have thought.

He should have asked the ghost of the Shah of Iran, who, at the time he fled Tehran, had had the consistent backing of the other great Cold War superpower. He should have asked the ghosts of the Yanks who died in the barracks in Lebanon, in the warship Cole, and in the 9/11 attacks.

An obvious consequence of Putin’s coming out from behind Iran’s shadow is that Russia and Russians are now direct targets of global jihad. An obvious consequence of El-Sisi’s heavy-handed tyranny is that Egypt’s government is now such a target. So are its innocent people, as “collateral damage.”

What’s even more interesting, in a macabre sort of way, is that the downing of Metrojet 9268 may presage a wholly new era of terrorism against aircraft. Reports of satellite observations appear to suggest that a blast came from an engine, not the fuselage. If so, that means a person with access to the innards of the engine may have planted a bomb there, where no one but a trained mechanic might notice it.

It’s not hard to believe that, among the hundreds of people who manage, service and maintain aircraft in Egypt, there might be an Islamist sympathizer or two who have no love for either Russians or official Egyptians. Such a person might be a relative of one of the tens of thousands whom El-Sisi has condemned to prison or to death, often with patently rigged trials and little or no evidence.

Putin and El-Sisi, of course, are both smart and ruthless men. No doubt they fully understand the consequences of their actions and policies and are prepared to accept them. After all, Putin already has accepted the deaths of thousands and the displacement of over a million in Eastern Ukraine, not to mention the utter destruction of Syria. El-Sisi has already accepted the incarceration and/or condemnation to death of tens of thousands, many of whom he must know are innocent.

But it’s different when the long arm of terrorism hits home. Neither tyrant wants to let his own people (or the world) connect the dots of cause and effect.

So the vehement and immediate protestations of Egypt and Russia that terrorism could not possibly have caused the disaster were utterly predictable. In fact, they were as predictable as Putin’s protestation that no Russian—not even the loose-cannon Russian agent and agitator “Strelkov”—could have been responsible for the downing of MH17.

Putin and El-Sisi would rather admit that their aircraft, pilots, and/or security failed than that their policies encourage terrorism and incite jihad. That is why the Western World, and all journalists and freedom-loving people everywhere, should not let this story die along with its innocent victims.

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