Anyone who watches TV detective stories knows there are certain rules all good investigators must follow. The same rules apply in all kinds of inquiry – in law, journalism and science alike.
The rules are essentially what’s called the scientific method. A method for acquiring knowledge which has been at the foundation of all liberal democracies for more than 300 years.
Take nobodies word for it. Hearsay doesn’t prove anything. Forget any theories and assertions, especially from the authorities, and just focus on the facts – the empirical evidence – the things we can experience with our common senses of touch, smell, taste, hearing and sight.
Don’t rush to judgement. Keep a cool head. Suppress all prejudices, preconceptions and emotions. Detach yourself from any theory or desire for any particular outcome. Explore all possibilities meticulously and rule them out one-by-one. When you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
Whether we’re investigating a murder or the motion of snooker balls on a snooker table, three things must be present before anything can happen: a motivating force, the means of applying the force and the opportunity to apply it. Just because a snooker player with the motivation to win a match is seen standing near a snooker table with a cue in his hand doesn’t prove he actually potted the ball. That evidence is purely circumstantial. To prove he did it we need hard physical evidence connecting him to the actual act. Video or audio recordings might do it, provided they haven’t been edited or tampered with. Photos might do it, provided they haven’t been Photoshopped. Eye witness testimony might do it, provided the witnesses haven’t been coerced or co-opted and can be trusted to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Given that their are very few, if any cases, where all the necessary irrefutable evidence is in place, the test is to display all the evidence calmly and rationally in open court and select 12 representatives of the public good-and-true to weigh each item of evidence on the scales of justice and decide for themselves who they think did it, beyond all reasonable doubt.
With those aspirations in mind let’s now look at how well they have been applied to the case of the tragedy of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17.
First we need to take nobodies word for it, reject all assertions and theories from the authorities and try to understand for ourselves how the situation in Ukraine might appear to those on the ground.
Imagine the landmass of Europe like Britain but rotated clockwise by 90 degrees. If Scotland becomes independent the border between it and the rest of the United Kingdom would be like the border between Russia and the rest of the European Union. Now, suppose the Scottish Borders, which has always been debatable territory, decide they want independence and Scotland grants it. The Borders would now be piggy-in-the middle between Scotland and the rest of the UK like Ukraine is piggy in the middle between Russia and the rest of the EU. And the capital of the Borders, Berwick or possibly Jedburgh, would be like Kiev.
England always wanted to govern Scotland and that doesn’t stop after Scottish independence. So, when the Scottish Border county becomes an independent country, England naturally sees that as an opportunity to draw them back into the rest of the United Kingdom, Great Britain or the British Union, call it what you will.
After a few years the democratically elected Borders’ government in Berwick is overthrown by a violent coup which joins the whole of the Border country to Great Britain, promotes neo-Nazis to top government positions, bans the Gaelic language and removes Robbie Burns from the core curriculum. The northern part of the Borders near Edinburgh don’t want any of that so they organise a quick referendum and vote 98% in favour of rejoining Scotland.
The English and their allies then declare the referendum illegal, accuse Scotland of invading the United Kingdom and support Berwick moving its forces into the northern Borders to take them back. Most of the people up there have always thought of themselves as Scottish anyway, so they call on Alex Salmond to protect them. But Salmond knows that the moment any of his forces set foot over the border the British and their allies will have the excuse they need to invade Scotland. He doesn’t want that, so he keeps shtum and sits tight.
Now, suddenly, for some unknown reason, a passenger jet full of innocent people who had nothing to do with any of this, crashes in the north Borders near Dalkeith killing everyone on board. The English and their allies claim to have evidence to prove it was the northern Border militia, (pro-Scottish separatists, rebels or whatever you want to call them) that did it and demand the incompetent hicks in the northern Borders stand aside and let the English and their allies take over.
The Scots are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they cross the border to persuade the pro-Scottish militia to allow the English and their allies to take control, they are guilty of breaking international law by invading a sovereign nation. If they don’t they are guilty of refusing to cooperate with the international investigation. If they move the wreckage to get to the bodies they’re guilty of tampering with evidence and contaminating a crime scene. If they don’t they’re inhuman monsters for treating the bodies with disrespect and leaving them in the sun to rot. If they move the bodies onto a refrigerated train they’re guilty of piling up human carcasses in a cattle truck like the Nazis. When Dutch experts arrive to retrieve the bodies and declare the storage has been “of good quality” the English suddenly change the subject and announce they’re starting an investigation into accusations that Alex Salmond ordered a hit on a Scottish ‘dissident’ (who was actually an English spy working for MI6) in London nearly a decade previously.
So what facts have we gathered so far, beyond reasonable doubt? That the English and their allies have strong motivations for finding reasons why they should take control of northern Borders? That the northern Borderers have strong motivations for keeping them out? Which might explain something about the politics and propaganda surrounding this disaster but says little about the actual cause of the crash. To investigate that we need to examine the evidence, calmly and rationally.
But there’s nothing better for drowning out calm and reason than the outpouring of strong emotions like grief, anger and hate. Grief must come first, obviously, and anger and hate are part of the five stages of grief, certainly. But, in an enlightened society, the investigation of the evidence, identification of the guilty and the rationing and apportioning of blame and punishment needs be done rationally, removed from emotional forces entirely, which is the reason we hold impartial and impersonal investigations in the first place.
So, now the emotional outpourings have started to disappear from the headlines we can perhaps start to examine the evidence in the calm, cool light of reason and rationality. So what do we know so far beyond any reasonable doubt?
In most air crash investigations where there is very little eye-witness, radar or radio evidence, most of the evidence is at the crash site. But this crash isn’t like that. Mechanical failure, turbulence, bird or lightning strikes can’t yet be crossed off the list entirely, but they can be given a lower priority. Top of the list is some kind of attack, either by missile or on-board explosion, either by accident or design. The plane was flying over a war zone, so a missile would be top of the list of things to rule out.
If it was a missile then what kind of missile was it and where was it launched?
The crash wreckage is likely show what kind of missile could have caused the damage, but not prove it beyond reasonable doubt. The cockpit voice recorder may contain eye-witness testimony of the moment before impact, but that’s unlikely. A much more likely source is the satellite, radar and radio surveillance which American, Russian and Ukrainian intelligence must be gathering in such a high-profile war zone.
So the storm over access to the crash site is a red herring or misdirection. First and foremost the investigators need access to surveillance from US, Russian and Ukrainian intelligence. If any one of them has hard factual evidence of the launch then this is the smoking gun: the most vital piece of evidence a murder inquiry can discover. If they can identify the launch site then this is the major crime-scene and the site the investigators need to lock down first, while the trail is still hot and before the evidence is tampered with, degraded or lost.
Russia is well known as a highly secretive totalitarian state under the control of a ruthless, megalomaniac, homophobic monster, so it was a bit of a shocker when they were first out of the gate on Tuesday putting their top-secret satellite and radar intelligence on live television for all the world to see.
Russian satellite surveillance showed Buk missile launchers in the area where Ukrainian and US intelligence said they were, but they were in the hands of the Ukrainian, not the rebel forces, which doesn’t fit with the current, widely accepted theory at all.
Russian radar showed two jet fighters in the vicinity of the passenger jet moments before the disaster, which doesn’t fit with the theory either. Did those fighters fire cannons or air-to-air missiles? Or were they there to trick rebels into firing on what they thought was a Ukrainian fighter jet?
The Russian’s couldn’t supply the answers, but if the US or Ukraine have evidence of the missile launch, which they say they have, then they are concealing crucial evidence, which in murder enquiries is generally considered evidence of complicity or guilt. Worse still, every day this evidence is withheld is a day where it can be tampered with or destroyed and any eye-witnesses intimidated or worse. This is, after all, a war zone where whole villages can easily be wiped-out accidentally on purpose and no one would ever know.
And yet, 7 days later, the most free and open democracy in the world claims it has evidence of the smoking gun but refuses to release anything except hearsay evidence gathered from social media and theories and assertions delivered in an authoritative and increasingly brittle tone of voice, as this White House press briefing shows:
Meanwhile those who refuse to rush to judgement and want to see the evidence before they decide are demonized in every way the mainstream media can think of, as this CNN piece shows:
So what conclusions can we draw from all this at this point in time?
Guilt and innocence, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. So it’s up to us, ladies and gentlemen good-and-true of the international public Grand Jury, to make up our own minds.