The first global tragedy that unfolded during my lifetime was the attack on 9/11. I was young and naïve, but I knew how to be afraid, and my parents, the news, and my teachers made absolutely sure I was. Everywhere I turned, every time I tried to understand, I was told that there were bad, scary forces at play in the world that I would never be able to stop. Over and over, I was told to “never forget,” as if it was the one solemn promise I could make to the victims of the tragedy, as a tribute. So I didn’t. As time passed I only became more afraid, more apprehensive, and far more prone to defeat. I began seeing planes as a symbol of the volatility of innovation—modern contraptions that could just as easily transport you elegantly across the Atlantic as plummet violently towards the earth with you in their clutches. As a foreign-born US citizen, I spent a large portion of my childhood on international flights visiting family. As a wide-eyed little boy, I experienced firsthand how the TSA and the public at large began viewing air travel with trepidation, using that panic as fodder for stricter rules and regulations, as well as a general attitude of uneasiness towards flight. Stories of ill-fated planes are talked about to no foreseeable end. This one is no exception.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 made major headlines Thursday, July 17th when it was shot down by a surface-to-air missile as it flew over rebel-held eastern Ukraine. All 298 passengers on board perished. Of these passengers, six were delegates, researchers, and advocates traveling to a conference in Melbourne, Australia dedicated to combating HIV/AIDS. One of these was Joep Lange, the 2002–2004 president of the International AIDS Society. He worked at the World Health Organization and headed clinical drug trials during the mid-1990s, even being one of the first to bring large quantities of HIV medication to the developing world. The AIDS research’s ties to the flight have garnered widespread media attention, some claiming that the loss will irreparably set back AIDS research. The Executive Director of UNAIDS and the president of the International AIDS Society both expressed their sorrow and condolences. It is the kind of story that makes a bad thing even worse, that makes you cringe and shake your head, that inspires introspection and self-betterment. It is human-interest and human tragedy. It’s the perfect plot.
However, the story was originally reported as the death of “around 100” AIDS advocates, a claim Obama repeated in his press release on Friday, and that was published in Slate and the Guardian. The speculation that the loss of these men and women will actually impede the progress of research, in an age where all information and research is digital, available instantaneously, and shared on worldwide networks is questionable at best. While it may be indulgent to speculate on whether or not the potential cure for AIDS “died on that plane,” that kind of musing is dangerous territory. Opportunities are frequently and swiftly cut short, and while this may be an example of a particularly visible occurrence, there is no evidence to suggest that the course of AIDS research has been remotely derailed.
Our media often constructs gripping narratives, as they are the most effective method of storytelling. In these narratives, there are great climaxes, there are characters who undergo the harshest of tragedies. Some don’t make it through. And those who don’t, well, their deaths are poetic. They are meaningful and gripping and they stand for something bigger. While the fact that some of the victims of the crash contributed immeasurable amounts to the AIDS cause over the years is worth noting and adds a more dynamic level to our understanding of the event, it should not be the reason we care. We can honor their lives and their work the same way that any life is honored when it reaches its end. And while this crash marks another tragedy involving a plane, that doesn’t suggest anything about the safety of air travel or the violence of our world at large. This crash should not illicit fear, as it will have a tendency to do. Do not despair.
The senseless loss of human life is a tragedy, period. Not because the victims of the plane crash were important scientists, not because it happened on an ever-dangerous flight, but because there were real people on that flight—men, women, and children with families, stories, experiences. We can only hope that every mistake, every fault with ramifications however large, will make our air travel safer, our politics cleaner, our policies more thoughtful. UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe used the conference to rally in support of his colleagues, urging his fellow researchers to strive for an end to AIDS by 2030. In short, we don’t use tragedy to selectively propagate information to overzealously lobby for our chosen cause. We don’t turn real world events into manifestations of a single issue. We learn from it, let it inspire us to achieve more, and we do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
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Enserink, Martin. “Myths of MH17: Did a Dutch Cyclist Really Almost Take Two Doomed Flights?” Slate Magazine. The Slate Group, 22 July 2014. Web. 28 July 2014.
Erdbrink, Thomas, and Donald G. Mcneil. “Leading AIDS Researcher, ‘Always Traveling,’ Is Killed on His Way to a Conference.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 July 2014. Web. 24 July 2014.
Neubauer, Ian. “Top AIDS Researchers Killed in Malaysia Airlines Crash.” Time. Time, 18 July 2014. Web. 28 July 2014.
Pollack, Harold. “AIDS Researcher Who Died in Malaysia Airlines Crash Was A Scientific Hero.” New Republic. The New Republic, 18 July 2014. Web. 28 July 2014.
Stewart, Robb M. “AIDS Delegates Mourn Colleagues on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 20 July 2014. Web. 28 July 2014.
Stewart, Robb M., and Betsy McKay. “AIDS Conference Remembers Colleagues Killed in Malaysia Airlines Crash.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 20 July 2014. Web. 28 July 2014.