Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Missing

It’s interesting, the fate of the missing. Some famous few—like Jimmy Hoffa, Amelia Earhart, Judge Joseph Force Crater, and the Roanoke Colonists—become almost mythological figures, people whose sudden disappearances from the flow of history have made them more famous in their absence than at least some of them were during their actual lifetimes. (The Roanoke people were last heard from in 1587, yet at least in some circles their name is still evocative of the possibility simply of vanishing into the swirling mist of history and never being heard from again.) Others, mostly those who would already have long since passed from the scene anyway, are simply forgotten. And still others—the explorers Henry Hudson and John Cabot come to mind—retain their fame, or at least their renown, but without it being recalled that they too disappeared and that none of us knows their ultimate fate. If asked what Henry Hudson and Amelia Earhart have in common, most Americans would guess that must be a parkway somewhere named for Amelia Earhart too!

In the end, though, it is journalists who determine who gets remembered and who gets forgotten far more meaningfully than historians.  Consider, for example, the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, which took off from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing on March 8 and was never heard from again. For weeks, the story was on the front page of every newspaper in the world. The story, as they say, had legs—a broad-based human interest angle (the plane had 227 passengers aboard who hailed from fourteen different nations) and an air safety angle (no one wants to imagine that huge airplanes can simply vanish into thin air), plus a dash of legitimate outrage (isn’t this precisely what the immense air traffic controllers’ world-wide network exists to prevent from happening?) and just enough rational fear (if this happened to those people...) to keep readers’ interest in the story alive for as long as new details could be added into the mix of data already received. But eventually that daily dose of new information stopped coming.

The search continued, but no actual debris was ever found. There were reports in the early days of the search that signals from the underwater locator beacons attached to the aircraft’s flight recorders (the so-called “black box”) had been detected, but those reports were never confirmed and are now considered unlikely to have been correct. At any rate, the batteries that power those locator beacons would definitely no longer be working by now, so there will be no further pings, faint or otherwise, from the depths of the Indian Ocean for anyone to analyze correctly or incorrectly.  And so the story of Flight 370 now fades into the background. We all remember the incident, at least so far. But it’s been weeks since I noticed any sort of official update on the situation in the paper or on-line media and I doubt, absent startling new developments, that any will be forthcoming.  The 227 passengers on board now join the 118 colonists at Roanoke in that special category of people who simply stepped off the stage of history and never returned. (Individuals can do this too, of course—the National Crime Information Center reports that there are active missing-person records for more than eighty-five thousand Americans, of whom more than eighteen thousand are children under the age of eighteen and another ten thousand are between ages eighteen and twenty. It’s just more dramatic when the exit is en masse, that’s all.)

More prominent in the news these days, although in a strangely muted way, are the missing girls of Nigeria. Abducted from the Government Secondary School in the Nigerian town of Chibok on the night of April 14-15 earlier this year, these 276 girls simply vanished into the night and have so far not been located. But that does not mean that their fate is unknown: according to reliable reports the girls were to be forcibly converted to Islam, then sold for a “bride price” of $12.75 each to members of the Boko Haram, the Islamic jihadist organization that has taken credit for the abductions.  Their story too seems to have vanished from our front pages and our screens.

Some Western countries, including the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and France, have sent teams of specialists to help the Nigerians search for the girls. There is reportedly a team of Israeli experts on the ground in Nigeria helping with the effort to bring the girls home. Michelle Obama has prominently participated in a Twitter campaign to signal her and the president’s outrage over the whole affair. But aside from all that…it’s been pretty quiet just lately on the Nigerian front. As was the case with the Malaysian Airlines flight, the girls’ story too was newsworthy for a while. But then it too disappeared, fading into the background simply because our print and electronic media ran out of new things to say about the case. And yet you’d think the fact that the Boko Haram (whose name in Hausa, one of the languages of Nigeria, means roughly “Western education is sinful”) are violent jihadists struggling to impose their extremist version of Islamic law in the area in which their organization functions in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger would make their story beyond interesting for American readers.  Or that the fact that the president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, noted last month that Boko Haram attacks on churches, schools, police stations and other civilian targets have left at least 12,000 dead and 8,000 crippled over the last decade would. Even in a world as inured to violence as ours, those numbers are shocking!

You would think for both those reasons that the world would be outraged. And, of course, the world is outraged…a little. Americans generally strike me as peculiarly uninterested in Africa, but here, where the crime was so outrageous, so shocking, and so violent, you would expect the kind of public outcry that simply hasn’t materialized. It would be easy to blame this kind of blasé lack of interest on racism. But the response of black Americans too has been strangely muted. Journalists drive the bus here too, of course, and once there stop being daily developments the impetus to keep any issue on the front burner diminishes in direct proportion to the likelihood of people reading a story through to the end about the fact that there isn’t anything new to report. What the fate of the girls will be, who can say? The president, in an interview the other day on the Today show, said that our nation's goal in the short term “is obviously is to help the international community and the Nigerian government…[and] to do everything we can to recover these young ladies. But,” the president added almost remarkably understatedly, “we’re also going to have to deal with the broader problem of organizations like this that…can cause such havoc in people’s day-to-day lives.” I’m sure that means something formally, but what I fear it means practically is that we are going to send some experts over to Africa to assist the Nigerians, then allow the girls, as they leave the front pages of our newspapers, to fade into the general category of “people to whom horrific things happened” and, other than regret, offer them nothing at all. 

 And that brings me to the story weighing on us all, the story of the three Israeli teenagers who have gone missing.  For the world out there, the salient details are that the boys’ fate is unknown, that no terror organization has credibly taken credit for their abduction, and that the only official Palestinian voice that has lately been heard in the matter was that of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas…and he condemned the abduction and revealed that he and his people are actively cooperating with Israel to restore the young men to their homes. For their part, the Israelis have indicated unequivocally, but without providing any real evidence, that this is the work of Hamas, the terror organization that recently joined its former rivals in Fatah in a national unity government to be led transitionally by Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. It’s hard to imagine the Israelis making a claim like that with nothing to back it up…but no proof has actually been proffered and so we are left with the upsetting reality that these young men—Naftali Frankel (age 16), Eyal Yifrach (age 19), and Gilad Shaer (age 16)—simply disappeared into the night air.

Outside the Jewish world, no one seems too upset. On Wednesday, the New York Times ran an article about how seriously those of us inside the Jewish world are taking this, almost as though it were a newsworthy detail that anyone cared about the teenagers’ fate, not the fact itself that the three young men are missing. Secretary of State Kerry issued a statement noting that the three were in his prayers, but forgetting to remember that one of them, Naftali Frankel, is an American citizen and that his abduction should therefore be considered a crisis for America to deal with more substantially than with prayer alone. It seems remarkable to me that the Palestinians have taken a more vigorous role in searching for Naftali Frankel than has our (and his) own American government…and I say that fully aware of the degree to which President Abbas’ crocodile tears are seriously compromised by his willingness to tolerate a terrorist organization like Hamas in the government over which he presides. Still, I’d like to think that he really is appalled. I surely am, as I’m sure are all my readers. 

While we wait for the IDF to find the three, there are things we can do. We can surely join Secretary State Kerry in prayer. But we can also insist, as American Jews, that our American government exert itself maximally on behalf of an American citizen taken captive and not treat his plight dismissively or indifferently. As supporters of Israel, we need to make the point forcefully to all our elected officials that the war against terrorism will only succeed if we decline to make straw distinctions between terrorists, and that the abduction of Naftali, Eyal, and Gilad by Hamas (or whatever splinter group turns out to be responsible) and the abduction of those poor girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram differ only in extraneous details but not in the ones that truly count. Terror against civilians is no better or worse depending on the gender, age, race, nationality, ethnicity, or religion of the victims.

Before I became a father, my nightmares were mostly about myself.  I was the one falling, the one lost in the streets of a strange city where no one seemed able to see me, the one suddenly aware that he had forgotten to put his pants on before getting on the subway to go to work.  But once I became a father, my dreamscape shifted focus and my nightmares started to be about my children. I was the one having the dream, of course. So it was I who couldn’t find them, or who couldn’t save them, or who couldn’t prevent some horrifically bad thing from happening to them. But even if my dreams continued to unfold as though projected through my own eyes and onto my own field of vision, the actors in the worst of my nightmares were now the people I felt the most worried about possibly being unable to protect from harm or successfully to watch over and to keep safe…from the world, from the wicked, from whatever. Nightmares, of course, are just dreams, just projections of our inmost fears on the backdrop of our waking lives. But the nightmare shared by the relatives of missing persons—and particularly the parents of missing children—is not a nighttime fantasy that can be counted on to vanish with morning’s light.

Those poor people on Flight 370 will not come home again. That much seems clear, but when it comes to the Israeli teens and the Nigerian girls, there is no real option for people of good will other than to struggle against the influence of the kind of profit-driven journalism that loses interest in “cold” stories, against the natural disinclination we all feel to become involved in other people’s troubles, and against the politics of appeasement that considers abduction less heinous when the abductors present themselves as politically motivated.  If these were our own children in play, we would be mounting the barricades and with one voice demanding action. But they are our children, all of them.

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