Will MH17 be our 9/11? (5) Joost Niemöller on the disaster

This article is a translation of "Wordt MH17 ons 9/11? (5) Joost Niemöller over de ramp"

A few months after the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine the Dutch journalist, Joost Niemöller, published his initial findings in a book, ‘MH17—de Doofpotdeal’ (‘the cover-up deal’). It was published last October by Van Praag in Amsterdam, with a preface by Dutch Marines general (ret.) K. Homan. With 193 pages it has a colour picture section which adds extra value because the photos provide evidence to some key arguments in the text. This book, inevitably written in a short span of time, deserves credit for providing what I see as an important contribution to judging the drama.

Niemöller opens with a chapter in which he explains that ‘the Netherlands’, so our government, was not just a passive victim on account of the number of countrymen that perished. It made a conscious decision not to negotiate with the ‘separatists’. That went a long way to blocking access to the wreckage, and the investigation’s fate was effectively placed in the hands of Kiev—all roads lead to it. ‘Or do they actually lead to Washington?’ Niemöller asks (p. 13).

In the West the Russian side of the story is ignored, something that the author does not want to countenance. He presents in this work a sample of investigative journalism that is not based on prejudiced points of view but that takes on board all facts and interpretations that he has been able to trace. The shale gas interests of large Western corporations, even the direct involvement of family members of senior US government officials, the bold plans by NATO to expand to Ukraine and Georgia, everything is included, however briefly.

Also, very importantly: the fact that at the moment MH17 was shot down, Merkel and Putin had reached a comprehensive agreement (pp. 37-8).

One cannot expect a book like this to base itself on wide-ranging theoretical considerations. Still Niemöller provides a useful framework through which we get a better understanding why we cling so stubbornly to certain positions (one may think here of the refusal of the Dutch ‘quality press’ to even consider the possibility that the Ukrainian and/or the Western side in the conflict might have had anything to do with the accident). Niemöller traces this to the notion of a ‘tunnel vision’, as when people stick to a preconceived or initially established perspective. This is something residing in the depths of the human psyche and therefore easily manipulated (pp. 45-8). Foreign secretary Timmermans’ speech in the UN, which earned him so many kudos, the title of ‘politician of the year’, etc. etc., is reduced by Niemöller to its true proportions as an exercise in demagogy that works to focus the tunnel vision.

One of the real merits of the book is that Niemöller analyses the other side’s story (the Russians’ in this case) equally carefully as he does ‘ours’. He slowly assembles the jigsaw (such as the impact and exit holes of projectiles, the wreckage and how it was dispersed) to arrive at the possibility that an Ukrainian jet fighter with its cannon and/or air-to-air missiles may have downed MH17 (incidentally also the non-official view of Malaysia). Without necessarily embracing this theory himself (the author throughout maintains a commendable distance which of course can only benefit the book), we then arrive at the subtitle, the ‘cover-up deal’.

For the Netherlands and a few other affected Western countries on 8 August 2014 signed an agreement with Kiev that any conclusions concerning the disaster would only be made public with the consent of all parties (p. 125). And this only worked to further entwine the political interests. Thus Timmermans has meanwhile become first vice-president of the European Commission, just as the EU is continuing to impose sanctions on Russia.

Of the ‘leading role’ that the Netherlands would have in the investigation, less and less remains (p. 134). There is an extensive account of the procedural constructions which almost guarantee that the various investigations will never produce a single compelling result. ‘It may sound cynical, but the only thing in which The Netherlands proved competent was the mourning ceremony’ (p. 146). Since the time the book came out, we therefore have repeated such ceremonies a few times.

‘MH17—de Doofpotdeal’ is not only important as documentation concerning the disaster. It also shows clearly how ‘facts’ become news. The lay person might think that this is a matter of reporting on the spot or studying the visual or documentary evidence, followed by an editorial process, but it happens in reality via the duel between official government statements. Thus the important fact that the plane was flying at a lower altitude than previously assumed, only became news one and a half month after the fact, because of a Dutch government statement (p. 61). However, the mental image people had of the event had then settled to such a degree that these technical details no longer influenced the (conscious or subconscious) judgement as to the perpetrator(s).

Whoever wants to study the tragic history of MH17 (and the background to it, the policy of the West to remove Ukraine from the buffer zone with Russia) should consider this book an indispensable first step.

Kees van der Pijl

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