Being an insomniac, I woke about 4 a.m. last Friday, turned on the BBC and there was the news already, although the details were sketchy, that a couple of hours earlier a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet had been brought down over Ukraine. It seemed inconceivable, but it soon became clear that it was true and, from that moment till now, everyone in their heart of hearts has known the gruesome truth: that 298 innocent people have been murdered by Ukrainian rebels who, egged on, armed and encouraged by Russia, had fired a missile at the plane and utterly destroyed it. Soon, the ABC started its special early morning TV coverage that simply got better in the following hours and days. And what a brilliant coverage it was: extensive, dramatic, accurate and very supportive in particular of the national loss when it became known that 38 Australians had perished, leaving behind their heartbreaking stories of the loss suffered by family and friends. Indeed, one of the most memorable statements of the whole tragedy came from the ABC announcer who was moved to say as more bad news came in: ‘We return to our coverage of this day of infamy.’ How could you put it any better?
Then, the details slowly emerged and the print media came into its own. For me, one of the most moving reports was that of the villager at the crash site who in his own simple language described what had happened: ‘We heard a rumble and then bodies just rained down from the sky.’ I imagine I was not alone in shivering at the recollection of bodies raining from the sky in New York on 9/11. The most pitiful visual from Ukraine was the rash of sticks, each with a white rag signifying that another body had been found in the fields. Even sadder were the shots of clothes, shoes, books and toys and the images they invoked of the last hours of their innocent owners.
From the blur of events of the following few days have now emerged some more permanent impressions. First, those of us who lived through the Cold War have had our worst fears realised; that Russia remains as big a threat to peace as the USSR was in that earlier era, that it is still aggressive, will finance and support proxies to destabilise its neighbours and is apparently immune to the normal civilising influences that other countries willingly accept. The symbol of Russian intimidation during the Cold War was the shipment of missiles bound for Cuba that was stopped by President Kennedy on its way to Cuba in October 1962; the symbol of today’s intimidation is the missile unleashed on innocent people in a civilian aircraft.
Second, we have seen how Tony Abbott has been recognised as a statesman whom other leaders will listen to and be influenced by and who can lead and unite the nation at a difficult time. Third, we have experienced Australia taking the lead on a major international issue and marshalling world opinion so effectively with our successful resolution in the Security Council, led by Julie Bishop. To get the United Nations moving at all on security matters is an achievement; to get it moving on a major issue, in double quick time and unanimously, despite the scope for a veto in the Security Council, is monumentally significant; it cannot help but lift Australia’s standing in the councils of the world and our ability to put a stamp on major issues and events in an increasingly unstable world.
Finally, the most difficult issue to come to a conclusion on is the degree of responsibility that can reasonably be sheeted home to Malaysian Airlines. On the one hand, it followed the advice of the international aviation authorities that it was safe to fly over the disputed part of Ukraine, provided it was at a specified height or above, and it seems that other airlines had done the same thing. But on the other hand, this seems to avoid the obvious question: safe from what? Clearly, not safe from a surface-to-air missile, unless the safety assessment was wildly astray. In any event, if you know there is a war waging on the ground and that one of the protagonists has missiles, has used them and has already shot down several aircraft, it seems dangerous and irresponsible to fly over the territory where the war is taking place. It is impossible to be definitive on the evidence we have at the moment, but what should be clear is that the system of risk assessment is in need of urgent and substantial overhaul. There clearly must be an international inquiry and risk assessment and the requirement to comply with it must be made an urgent item on the agenda.
We are also entering, if possible, an even more dangerous time in the Hamas–Israeli conflict. Having embarked on this venture and for good reason, Israel now has to see it through, at least until its major security objectives are achieved and Israeli citizens can be given some protection from Hamas’s rockets. This will be hard, especially in the face of the inevitable increase in the number of deaths of Israeli soldiers, the mounting civilian casualties in Gaza and the resulting international pressure for a ceasefire. I hope I still have an open mind on this, but it should be clear by now that if you compromise in the face of terror and the sort of rocket attacks we have seen inflicted on Israeli citizens, you do nothing but shift the resumption of the same terror tactics a few months down the track until they inevitably resume.
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