By Gwynne Dyer
One of the major causes of death for airline passengers in recent decades is being shot down by somebody’s military. Accidents account for nine-tenths of all deaths in civilian airline crashes, and terrorist attacks and hijackings cause most of the rest. But a solid 2.5% of the deaths are due to trigger-happy people in military uniforms.
That’s 1,379 passengers killed in commercial airliners that were shot down because they were off-course or simply mis-identified, out of a total of 57,767 deaths in all the ‘major incidents’ (more than 50 deaths) in aviation history.
The early shoot-downs involved actual fighters, like the El Al plane that strayed into Bulgarian airspace in 1955 and an off-course Libyan airliner shot down by Israel over the Sinai Peninsula in 1973. The last victim of these manned shoot-downs was an off-track Korean Air Lines jumbo jet shot down by a Soviet fighter in 1983. All 269 passengers and crew were killed.
Since then the killing has been done by surface-to-air missiles, with no visual identification. The first SAM incident was in 1988, when the US Navy ship Vincennes, operating illegally in Iran’s territorial waters, shot down an Iran
Air jet bound for Dubai with 290 people aboard. They all died.
So did all 298 passengers and crew in a Malaysian Airlines plane shot down in 2014 by Russian-backed rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine. And now 176 people, the great majority of them Canadian citizens or residents, have been killed just off the end of the runway in Tehran by a young Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps technician who thought he was shooting down an American drone.
What we are dealing with here is mostly human error – but human error driven by paranoid politics and huge time pressure.
You can’t do anything about the time pressure: decisions really do sometimes have to be made in seconds when there’s an apparent ‘hostile’ incoming on the radar. The paranoia might be easier to address in principle, but it’s equally inevitable in practice: all the shoot-downs happen in countries that are in acute military confrontations of one sort or another.
And that’s the point, really: all these shoot-downs are fundamentally a political phenomenon, not a technical malfunction or mere human error. We live in a far more peaceful world than our distant ancestors did, but our deepest cultural traditions are still tribal. Once a confrontation gets going, we quickly turn into Yanomamo villagers.
On the other hand, don’t despair. The great majority of the world’s people now live in countries where the risk of war is very low or entirely absent, and the cities are not surrounded by anti-aircraft missiles. We have already travelled a very long way from the time when every human society lived in constant fear of all its neighbours.
There could still be back-sliding, especially if the climate crisis overwhelms us, but so far the trend line is promising. The world’s population has more than doubled in the past half-century, but the number of people killed in war is less than a tenth of what it was in the previous half-century.
However, the planes are much bigger, and there are now around a million people in the air at any given moment, so there are also more people being killed in shoot-downs. It’s never any consolation to tell people that things are getting better on average when they have been devastated by a personal loss. But for what it’s worth, they are.