The Disappearing Act, by Florence de Changy
Le Monde journalist Florence de Changy, who was once based in Malaysia, has spent years researching the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
The anniversary just passed — the plane, carrying 239 people, disappeared seven years ago on March 8, 2014 en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. Since then, this mystery has been an all-consuming one, the kind of rabbit-hole story that loops in everyone from garden-variety conspiracy theorists who see government machinations at play everywhere to, well, Courtney Love, who inevitably is cited in any story emphasizing the public’s obsession with information around the missing commercial airliner.
Nature abhors a vacuum, as de Changy reminds us, so none of this should be surprising. In this day and age, for a Boeing 777 to completely disappear is unheard of, borderline impossible. Something big went wrong, and even with bits of debris finally washing up – the flaperon that taught us all what a flaperon was when it appeared on Reunion Island in 2015, and pieces starting to appear the next year in Mauritius, Tanzania, and elsewhere in Africa – we still don’t have definitive answers. We barely have credible speculation, as it’s possible to easily poke holes in just about any theory, which she brilliantly goes on to do. (Bad news: she explains that even if the black box is found it won’t make much of a dent in solving this mystery. It only contains the last two hours of cockpit noise, and de Changy makes the point that “it is not guaranteed at all that any revelations will come from the cockpit in that time period.” Drat.)
She first published a book about her intensive research into the case in French in 2016 but continued researching, interviewing, and traveling to follow leads. The extent of her efforts is impossible to understate. I was often in awe. The Disappearing Act is so detailed, and follows every single thread to its source. De Changy researches a theory until it falls apart, picks up whatever pieces remain and on to the next possibility. It can be exhausting to read since there are a lot of technicalities involved, so I can’t imagine what it was like to research and write. She covers Malaysian culture and politics – of necessity including corruption – geopolitics, how other plane crashes have been handled, and any bits of culture or context necessary to understand what’s known about what happened and explain her ideas. It is thorough.
So with that in mind, now I, a completely unqualified, zero-research-doing (aside from a very educational episode of National Geographic’s Drain the Oceans) person with an internet connection will give my opinion on it.
In They All Love Jack, Bruce Robinson noted, “There are two theories of history, the ‘cock-up’ and the ‘conspiracy’. This was both. It was a conspiracy that cocked up.” De Changy comes to the same conclusions of what befell MH370. Essentially, there was something or someone (but most likely a something) on board the flight that couldn’t be allowed to reach China. This is where the US government, longtime masters of both meddling in business they shouldn’t and cocking it up while they’re at it, comes in.
I’m not completely convinced, although I think the truth is somewhere within all of this. She makes a good case for her theory but it relies on 1) a lot of anecdotes being true that could just be people flapping their gums who don’t know what they’re talking about, as people tend to be very good at doing, and 2) a lot of people, in multiple countries and governments, including favorite conspiracy-staple Barack Obama being able to keep a whopping big secret, as people tend to be not so good at doing. (If she’s right it goes all the way to the TOP, much as I loathe any theory involving Obama because it gives air to all the extra-crazy bullshit racist ones; more on which later.)
I think she was a bit hasty in her total dismissal of pilot responsibility, mainly because if you apply Occam’s razor, which she mentions at one point, that would seem the option with the least amount of assumptions. I also wasn’t convinced by her evidence that the pilot was such an outstanding person – not convinced that he wasn’t either, but that’s the point. It’s like what Gavin de Becker says in The Gift of Fear: basically no one knew anything relevant. But she makes a good argument against blaming someone who can’t defend themselves, and there’s precedent for that being an easy out. (Aside: she absolutely lays into this Atlantic article which squarely blames pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah, and there is nothing I love more than an expert slapfight. Although, again, Occam’s razor: what William Langewiesche explains there seems more within the realm of the possible to me.)
I did have trouble following every explanation, they can be almost too granular and at times too technical, other times they just feel convoluted – like one explaining why the information about the pilot’s home simulator, which he allegedly used to chart this destination-less course into the Indian Ocean, was wrong. There’s information overload in general, and sometimes math was involved (I’m gone) but that glut of information can make it tough to follow or fully grasp each point. When it gets back on track it’s endlessly compelling though.
As for going too deep into nutball conspiracy territory, which I feared it might do, it mostly avoids that by how much data she can throw behind any theory. She also firmly establishes herself on the side of truth, like when clarifying for international readers what Fox News is: “an American television network that was a close rival of Russia Today in terms of objectivity.” What a burn that Fox viewers probably wouldn’t even get!
Which brings me to one last very unfortunate thing I have to note: she references Orly Taitz, who filed a FOIA with the NSA for documents about MH370, and calls her a “celebrity lawyer.” That’s an awfully nice way of saying “racist birther conspiracy theorist,” apparently. Never, ever use Orly Taitz in any way to support any argument! It torpedoes your credibility immediately. There’s no other reference to her, but why even mention her in the first place when the only association is such a terrible one?
(And god, Orly Taitz would be all over this if she knew Obama was potentially even the slightest, peripherally little bit involved – de Changy only alleges that he knew what happened to the plane in a government intervention that went awry and allowed the coverup/conspiracy of silence around it to take place. But Orly will turn that into Obama crouched on the Chinese border shooting the plane down himself with his Connecticut vampire eye-lasers, I suppose, and then suggest we dig up his dead father again.)
Deeply compelling book about a Gordian knot of a mystery, where, if the author is to be believed, even established facts and narratives aren’t what they seem. Basically nothing you think you know about this is definitively proven true — down to the debris. It’s eerie, and extremely sad ultimately, because de Changy also does a great service by including interviews and information from the families and friends of the 239 who were on board, who live not only with the dreadful lack of closure, but with the infamy, wild speculation, and blame-throwing that surrounds it. If she’s right and a lot of people know what happened, I hope that someone will eventually be moved to speak on it.
The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370
by Florence de Changy
published February 4, 2021 by Mudlark (UK, but you can buy Kindle/ePub and it’s out May 18 in the US!)