The word ‘outrage’ has often felt diluted in recent years. There has been a laziness in its use in tabloid headlines to describe boorish behaviour by celebrities or mildly inconvenient politically driven decisions, but the loss of Malaysian Airways Flight MH17 in the events of this weekend in Ukraine have truly underlined what an outrage really is. The very first dictionary I picked up defined outrage as “an act of wanton cruelty or violence; any gross violation of law and decency”. Within the same definition, it then followed on to say that an outrage is anything that strongly offends, insults or affronts the feelings, particularly where something is perceived as an injury, an insult or an injustice.
The destruction of flight MH17 last week seems almost cherry picked to serve as an illustration of this small word, and yet in the unfolding narrative that is coming to light, it almost does not seem enough. It seemed to almost beggar belief that a commercial airline could just drop out of the sky, but as the details began to be reported amid a storm of claim and counter-claim of a missile strike, the true horror began to unfold.
Everyone seems to have general expectations in the event of an airline disaster – and one of those is that rescue teams and investigators should be able to do their work without interference. Now, with the crash site being in the middle of a hotly contested area in a vicious civil war that was already contentious because of the rebels’ links with the Russian government, there was always going to be logistical problems to ensure the safety of the teams involved. However, the story that has been developing over the weekend with rebel forces reportedly actively hindering access to the wreckage and the tales of victims’ bodies and possessions being looted have seemed to recall legends of the worst battlefield looters from the dark ages.
Where does the blame lie? Well, if I’m ever given a choice between something being a conspiracy or a mistake, I’ll usually opt to believe it’s a mistake until there’s evidence of the former. People are stupid, rash and prone to get caught up in adrenaline fuelled misadventures – and the sad, sordid truth for me at this moment is that I believe that nobody got up that morning and made a to-do list that included shooting down a commercial flight carrying innocent men, women and children from a dozen different countries at an altitude that was believed safe from the sort of rag-tag equipment that the rebels were believed to have.
Even the allegations of looting and the images of news teams inspecting the luggage of victims do little more than confirm the old adage that while individuals may be smart, intelligent and self-aware, people are dumb, opportunistic and insensitive to depths that rightly appal everyone who watches.
My real anger is reserved for those who have been fuelling the war, equipping the rebels to fight as their proxies and who are now caught on the horns of a dilemma. The Russian government is heavily invested in stopping its former provinces from pursuing independent paths or even bolstering the ranks of the European Union. To that end, they have encouraged, trained and equipped the pro-Russian separatists fighting in Ukraine and have been conspicuous in their inability to speak out to condemn the events that have spiralled out of that decision.
With the US President speaking directly this afternoon of the burden resting with Russia to exert influence over the separatists to allow a proper investigation and the reclamation of the dead by their relatives; and with Europe making hard calculations about just how much pain they will be willing to take to exert pressure on Russia in widening economic sanctions, it would seem that Russia is even more isolated today than they have been. But do they care? Perhaps the Russian government is banking on the reliance of its economic neighbours in the EU – particularly in Germany – on its oil exports to mute criticism. Any trade sanctions that would be worthy of the name would have to target the oil revenue flowing into the oligarchs’ coffers, and so a tense battle of nerves would seem to now be the next phase in this horrifying scenario.
If the separatists have had enough time to obliterate enough evidence of exactly what happened, then it is hard to see what will come out of this week beyond a hardening of existing lines and attitudes. Perhaps that is the greatest outrage of this whole disaster.