In an Air Disaster, It's OK to Say 'Don't Know'

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Nobody's comfortable leaving tragedies unexplained, least of all the media. Which is why the conjecture over the fate of EgyptAir Flight 990 is remarkable mostly for its restraint. There are no terrorist mug shots flashing across TV screens; no wild speculation over missiles and meteors; and even the traditional spotlight on the manufacturer hasn't been particularly harsh. Most media outlets are keeping within the bounds of the official explanation that there's no reason, as yet, to suspect foul play. Of course that "as yet" is heavy with portent, but that's hardly surprising —there are legions of potential suspects with the motive and the means to strike down an airliner traveling from the U.S. to the Arab world. But while every forensic detail that might point to a traumatic event and possible terrorism is being scrupulously examined, there's no rush to list the usual suspects. And that's an achievement in itself.

The second line of conjecture, naturally, concerns Boeing, which was already being pilloried for holding back the findings of a 1980 internal study into the fuel tank problem that may have been responsible for the TWA 800 disaster. Media reports are mentioning the fact that this particular 767 was completed in 1989 shortly before the manufacturer's workforce went on strike, complaining of too much forced overtime — and that the next plane that rolled off the production line after it crashed in Bangkok in 1991 — without comment, leaving the reader to connect the dots. But the fault that caused the 1991 accident had reportedly been fixed throughout the 767 fleet, and the EgyptAir plane had been in continuous service for eight years after its production line neighbor crashed. No, there's simply no evidence enabling any conclusions or even solid conjecture right now, and if we're learning to accept that without rushing to open the X-Files, we're getting somewhere.