The line between tragedy and farce is difficult to explain. The best way to to distinguish them is to say “you’ll know it’s tragic if it is.” In 1998 Eugene Volkh wrote an article titled “How the Asians Became White”.  That was farce. In Malaysia this transformation literally happened.  The results might prove to be tragic. The passengers holding stolen Austrian and Italian passports who boarded MH370 had “Asian faces”. Reuters reports:

Malaysia’s state news agency quoted Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as saying the two passengers using the stolen European passports were of Asian appearance, and criticizing border officials who let them through.

“I am still perturbed. Can’t these immigration officials think? Italian and Austrian but with Asian faces,” he was quoted as saying late on Sunday.

Of course anyone who said the same thing in the West would be decried as racist.  But Chinese, never having heard of PC,  are not amused. They have taken a dim view of Malaysia’s handling of the entire affair. “China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, appeared to flash impatience in a phone call reported on the ministry’s website.”

“The Malaysian Airlines flight has been missing for close to 40 hours,” he was quoted as telling his Malaysian counterpart, Datuk Seri Anifah Aman.

“The Chinese government is treating this very seriously, and the Chinese people are extremely anxious.”

He asked that Malaysia “constantly” provide updates on the situation, the global daily reported.

It noted that in a series of briefings, Malaysian officials refused to answer any questions relating to what they described as “security matters”.

Not discussing “security matters” might be another way of saying “we’re are afraid to tell you how badly we screwed up.”  Now the situation has taken an even more dramatic turn. The description of the interlopers has changed. They are now black. ABC News says: “One of the passengers who used a stolen passport to board the missing Malaysia Airlines passenger jet was a black man, a Malaysian official indicated today.”

When asked about the two men who used the stolen passports, Rahman replied, “We confirmed now they are not Asian looking males.”

When pressed to describe them, he said, “Do you know a footballer by the name of Bartoli? Do you know what he looks like?”

Reporters corrected him asking, “Mario Balotelli?” and asked whether the man with the stolen passport was black. Balotelli, who is black, is an Italian soccer player.

“Yes,” Rahman replied.

Rahman refused to further describe the two men.

Don't you mean Bertolli?

Don’t you mean Bertolli?

If the passengers weren’t exactly who the authorities thought they were, the airplane may not have been on its course either.  The 7th Fleet says it now searching the northern  Straits of Malacca, even as it added another Burke class destroyer, the USS Kidd, to the search.  The 7th Fleet Facebook page says:

• The Navy MH-60R helo will have about 10.5 hours of search coverage today in the Eastern search area (Gulf of Thailand). If needed, the helo is capable of nighttime searching – it flew last night using its Forward Looking Infra-red (FLIR) camera.
• Today the Navy P-3 will search an area west of Malaysia in the northern section of the Strait of Malacca. The P-3 can cover more than 1,500 square miles every hour (about 4,000 square kilometers)
• US Navy aircraft have not seen any debris associated with commercial aircraft wreckage. Our aircraft are able to clearly detect small debris in the water, but so far it has all been trash or wood.

The USN is no longer taking the assumed track of the airplane as given.  They are now searching 90 degrees to either side of the reported track of the MH370.

Earlier, Interpol complained that few countries — not Malaysia at least — had bothered to use their database of stolen passports.  Only a few countries, he said actually used it.

“It is clearly of great concern that any passenger was able to board an international flight using a stolen passport listed in Interpol’s databases,” Interpol Secretary General Ronald K. Noble said in the statement.

Kip Hawley, a former administrator of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, said the stolen passports and the prospect the plane crashed into the Gulf of Thailand “makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.”

The measures put in place since September 11 have occasionally been described as “security theater”. It looks impressive, but at least in Malaysia it does less than you would think.

And terrorists think. They know that Southeast Asia, home to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, is a region where, with the right connections, anything goes. For this reason, the precursor to the the 9/11 attacks, Operation Bojinka, was rehearsed mostly in the Philippines. It was uncovered only by accident.

Despite his careful planning and the skill of Ramzi Yousef, the Bojinka plot was disrupted after a chemical fire drew the Philippine National Police’s (PNP) attention on January 6–7, 1995. Before the plot was disrupted, Yousef detonated test bombs in a mall and theater, injuring scores of people, as well as Philippine Airlines Flight 434, killing one person and nearly causing enough damage to lose the entire aircraft.

Bojinka planned to kill the Pope, blow up airlines simultaneously the world over and crash an airplane into CIA headquarters. They tested out their plans in the Philippines because they knew they could hide in the ambient chaos.  Nor is Malaysia perhaps that much better. A Malaysian friend of mine described the officialdom in his former country as leaving something to be desired. And so perhaps the men were let through less out of tolerance than carelessness.

But why should we blame the passport officer who sees the face but follows the passport?  The days when you asked “who won the World Series” when challenging identity are over. The primacy of documentation means one is who the database says.  You may not speak the native language. You may even be fighting for the other side. But if that’s what the passport says, that’s who you are.

The press routinely reports ‘Westerners’ as fighting in Syria or joining the Taliban. And that is factual even if it is not. Somehow it has become possible to both fight against your nation and simultaneously claim its protections. Of course it would be if the database says so.

Identity is entirely a matter of having papers that are in order. There is some irony to the circumstance that uprisings in the world today are being waged by those want their identities back. The Uighurs, Ukranians, Russians — to name a few — aren’t fighting to be absorbed, but to be distinct.  They want something beyond the supremacy of papers. And they are willing to use everything, including the weaknesses of the papers themselves, to reach their goal.

But for the meantime papers are what the authorities say they are, however that may be.


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