Hiding Behind Malaysia Flight 17


Photo Credit: Victoria Nevland via Compfight cc

This week I’d planned to do a follow-up to a recent post about my Facebook friend request conundrum. And as is so often the case in life, things happen. The follow-up post will have to wait until next week.

This thing that’s caused me to switch blogging gears started out as a twisted idea for a tweet. And if you haven’t seen the season finale of “24: Live Another Day,” here comes a…


News of the downed Malaysia Flight 17 broke a few days after the season finale of “24: Live Another Day.” The final scene of that episode showed the main character, Jack Bauer (played by Kiefer Sutherland), flying off in a helicopter to the waiting arms of Mother Russia, who was about to go all revenge-crazy on his “terrorist” ass.

I won’t even say what my tweet idea was. I’m sure some douchebag already made the same connection and tweeted my thoughts. The good news is at least my filter is still intact, even if it took my husband’s foresight to kick it into gear with “Bad idea, honey.”

So, I’ve spent the last few days watching the nearly 24-hour coverage like a lot of other people. But instead of waiting for information about who did it, what “it” really was and what we’re going to do about it (because of course we always have to do something), I waited for something else.

I waited to see which U.S. media outlet would talk about our own “tragic and regrettable accident” (as it was referred to in a report from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) back on July 3, 1988. That was the day the USS Vincennes shot down Iranian Airbus Flight 655 while it was on its way to Dubai, flying in its own airspace, over its own territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, on its usual flight path.

I’m still waiting.

To be fair, I haven’t watched every bit of TV coverage, and haven’t read every online article and newspaper, so this is not a scientific analysis of data. Searching online this past weekend, I did find a couple of articles that mentioned it, with some of the most detailed coverage by CBS News. 

But to be clear, all but one of the articles I read online had this incident included in menagerie of other commercial airlines that have been shot down, like any other lists you may stumble upon online:

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It feels like the U.S. media are cops directing traffic away from a horrific accident: “Keep moving folks…nothing to see here.”

This is my own coverage of that incident in July 1988. A first-hand account told not from the comfort of my sheltered Midwest home back then, but from the eyes of a naive eighteen-year-old who was on the other side of the world when it happened—the year I was an exchange student in Australia.

My host family and I have traveled two hours south to Sydney from our hometown of Muswellbrook, New South Wales where I’ve been living as an exchange student. We park in a suburb and take the subway into the center of the city. When we get off the train, I dart over to the steps that lead up to the brilliant day.

As I stand there impatiently waiting for my host family, I hear voices muffled by the pavement overhead. I assume it’s the normal sound of a bustling, chattering crowd on their way to their respective destinations. But as I climb a few steps, the sound becomes more distinct. It’s chanting—loud, rhythmic chanting.

As I reach street level, the sun reflecting off the pavement and tall, glass-fronted buildings blinds me. As my eyes begin to adjust, I notice a crowd milling around, pointing and looking in the same general direction. I push my way through and try to catch a glimpse of whatever has captured their attention.

As I reach the edge of the street, I see them.

They’ve just rounded the corner, marching in an unorganized but determined manner directly in the middle of the street, stopping traffic and my heart as they go. They’re clustered together, one great sea of dark brown faces unidentifiable to me. They each carry a sign and scream the same phrases over and over, their voices rising with each step they take toward me. I begin to piece together their words:




As I stand there listening to their cries, I remember the recent news coverage. A few days before on July 3, 1988, we, my home country, blew a commercial Iranian airliner out of the air, killing all 290 passengers including 66 children and 16 crew.

We, my home country, would later say we thought it was an attacking F-14 Tomcat fighter.

Iran would condemn us as negligent.

In the end, we will pay $61.8 million to the families. But we never admit responsibility, and we never apologize.

Now I begin to understand.

Everything else around me blurs. All I see are these faces and all I hear are these words. I’m part of this now, part of something that has only been a headline in the newspaper, part of something I never bargained for when I decided to become an exchange student.

I scan my clothes, hoping I’m not wearing anything that gives away my American-ness. I search the onlookers, convinced they suspect what and who I am, certain at any moment they’ll turn me over to the angry mob in the street, yelling, “Here! Here’s the American!”

I panic and start to cry.

For the first time in my life, I feel shame and disgrace solely because I’m an American. And even though I didn’t push the button, I feel responsible.

I killed the young couple starting their new life together. I killed the girl, about my age, on her way to her own adventure. I killed the mother anxious to get home to her children. I killed another mother’s child.

It was me.

Someone calls my name. I spin around, sure it’s coming from the marching mob in the street.

But it’s only my host family. They rush toward me and pull me from the throng of people. As I stare at their faces, ones that look so much like mine, I realize how lucky I am to have “passed.”

My host mother draws me to her reassuring me that it’s not my fault. She tells me that those people are crazy and it was a horrible accident, as if she was talking about a dog that peed on the floor.

As I look up at her, a white, middle-class woman in her own home country, I know she doesn’t understand.

She doesn’t understand that those people are not crazy—they’re stupefied. She doesn’t understand that they’re mourning the loss of their people, the ones they know my country stole from them. She doesn’t understand that these people are demonstrating against me.

As the mob marches down the street, their chanting becomes softer until it’s only a slight droning, pulsating in my head. The gawking crowd disperses and goes on their way, and we go on with our tour of the city, tainted for me now.

So, what about you? When was the first time you remember feeling “other than” or even hated for who you are or where you’re from? Is your first instinct to hide your mistakes or are you brave enough to bring them out into the open?

8 thoughts on “Hiding Behind Malaysia Flight 17

  1. Hi Kelly. I appreciate you reminding us ALL that accidents do happen and that none of us are blameless. I frequently experience some of your discomfort because I live in Southern California where there is a huge Mexican American population along with many who are here without credentials. And I also travel regularly to Mexico and appreciate the people and the culture. Yet I am constantly amazed and even embarrassed about the reaction of many people of my ethnicity who act clueless about how our community relies on efforts of these hard working people. I’m also shocked at some of the behavior to stop any access to work permits or legalization. And don’t even get me started talking about the protests against the young orphan children from Central-America.

    It’s very tempting to put our heads in the sand and pretend nothing is going on. I’m not sure what the answer is but it can never be accomplished by ignoring it or blaming others. ~Kathy
    Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com recently posted…Alternative Medicine—How Far Will You Go To Be Healed?My Profile

    1. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts Kathy. Here in Iowa, we don’t have the same Hispanic or Latino population you do in SoCal (only about 5% of our total population. But we have a governor who’s said he doesn’t want to house any immigrant children in “his” state so that population isn’t going to increase if he has his way. Geez.

  2. Gee Kelly, I forgot all about that happening to you over there. You must have been scared to death. You’re lucky your host family at that time felt the way they did regarding the accident and didn’t shun you in ways because of it. Love you Mom

    1. They were an awesome family and I’m glad they were with me vs. some of my other host families, especially one particular sibling, who shall remain nameless—she probably would have thrown me to the mob. 🙂

  3. Thanks for sharing your story.
    I have a difficult time with generalizations. You were not guilty of the US military “mistake” in 1988 any more than the Islamic praying in a mosque near my home in Oregon was guilty of the 9/11 attacks on New York and DC. Of course, I do understand that feeling of responsibility, of guilt. I wish the leaders who are truly responsible for these terrible acts would experience the shame and regret you describe.
    I refuse to feel ashamed for being American when America makes mistakes. I refuse to be ashamed of being a Christ follower when a self-proclaimed Christian bombs an abortion clinic or burns the Qaran.
    Of course, I’m 40-something and have made enough mistakes of my own that I realize only the maker of a mistake should feel the burn of it (although our actions never affect only us).
    Excellent writing. I could really see this incident through your eyes and feel your grief and shame.
    sharonhughson recently posted…Life, Time and other Non-renewable ResourcesMy Profile

    1. Thanks Sharon!

      I think I’d have a different reaction to that situation today (although I still probably wouldn’t step up and identify myself as an American to a mob bent on avenging their countrymen’s deaths). At 18 I thought that everyone loved America because I’d never been told any differently and had never been outside the country to witness anti-American sentiment myself.

      Today, I’d never feel personally responsible for something my country did and I’d more than understand that America is not the world’s darling.

      I kind of think of my American citizenship like the relationship between a parent and child—I’ll always love my child, no matter what, but I don’t have love everything she does.

  4. I’d never heard of the 1988 accident, probably because I was a toddler when it happened. And now that I know about it, I can’t say I’ve heard any news media outlets mention that attack at all since Malaysia Flight 17 went down….

    It’s taken me a few days to respond to your article because of how vividly you described the demonstration and your own feelings. The terror and shame, how you prayed no one would single you out as an American in front of the mob… It reminded me of 9/11. I was in high school then, and one of my best friends was a Muslim who had lived in town for years. She was petrified of going back for days because she didn’t know how her peers would treat her after the attack. 🙁 I can’t say that I’ll ever truly know how she felt, but I’m sure it must have similar to how you felt that day in Australia.

    At least you weren’t alone that day. Your host family may not have completely understood what was going through your mind, but they did everything they could to reassure you and make you feel a little bit safer.
    Sara L. recently posted…Recent Reads: “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower” by Stephen ChboskyMy Profile

    1. Thanks Sara. Your friend’s experience sounds horrible. Those were blood-thirsty days (months, years?) after 9/11. Not that I’m into comparing experiences because life really isn’t a one-up, but when I think of your friend’s experience and compare it to my own, I ratchet it up about 1,000 times.

      Like you said, I was with people who cared about me, in a country where most people thought well of Americans. It was only a “small” group of people who said they wanted to kill my kind.

      But your friend? She was in a country surrounded by people who were living on an eye-for-an-eye. I don’t know that my psyche could have handled that level of fear.

      Sadly enough it seems as if the level of hatred hasn’t diminished, for either of our kind. 🙁

      Thanks again for reading and commenting—much appreciated!

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