By now you know of the tragic story of the jetliner carrying nearly 300 souls.
Hit by a powerful missile, it had no chance. Blown out of the air, the jet went down. All passengers and crew were killed.
Quickly, almost immediately, in the confusion of the immediate aftermath, with tempers up and the loved ones just learning of the tragedy, the politicians did what they do best.
They talked and made rhetorical fists. Some demanded revenge, and if not revenge, they called for swift, decisive action. Some were sincere, but others used the chaos to push their own agendas or those of their nations.
And who was to blame for the missile attack on the civilian jetliner and the deaths of all those people?
The United States of America.
Because it was one of two U.S. surface-to-air missiles fired from the USS Vincennes that destroyed Iran Air Flight 655 on July 3, 1988.
The Iranians were outraged. The Soviet Union pressed for advantage in the Middle East. Many nations expressed sympathy for the dead, and then they used the tragedy to leverage their agendas at our expense.
Our nation said it was an accident. Some in Iran refuse to believe that. And most of us have forgotten.
Now, 26 years later, another jetliner has been shot down. And there is another set of victims, another set of denials, another series of emotional responses and agenda-driven political accusations. More fists in the air, more attempts to escalate the conflicts.
We’re told that a Russian-made missile struck Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, killing 298 people. Americans reportedly were on board that jet.
Perhaps you thought of the Americans, and the others, while watching the TV footage that showed the bodies and the body parts in the wreckage on the ground. Some passengers were said to have been found strapped to their seats. The debris was scattered for miles.
Why am I comparing these two tragedies 26 years apart?
Because we Americans have a tendency to forget history, especially inconvenient history. And because superpowers pushing against each other with emotions up and rhetoric aflame over downed jetliners might make for good TV drama. But it isn’t smart or thoughtful policy.
That’s a hot-button approach. And we need caution and cold-mindedness now, not empty demands to put the Russian bear in a box.
Twenty-six years ago, Soviet leaders were angry and loud. They tried to use what happened to Iran Air Flight 655 to put pressure on American interests in the Middle East. And now American politicians are just as angry and loud, using Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 to apply similar leverage on Russian interests in Ukraine.
So with all the emotion expressed by politicians on TV, all I’m suggesting is that we take a step back, to think and listen, and think some more, as political actors use Thursday’s tragedy to push various agendas.
We’re told it was a sophisticated Russian-made missile that brought the Malaysian airliner down, and analysts were rejecting the idea that untrained pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine could have worked the weapons system by themselves.
So who fired it? Did Russians inside the Russian border fire it? Or was it those separatists armed by Russian boss Vladimir Putin in Ukraine? Or others?
The thing is, we don’t know yet, and even if we do, is anyone prepared to go to war over it? No, but that didn’t stop Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona from saying there would be “hell to pay.”
“If it is the result of either separatist or Russian actions mistakenly believing this was a Ukrainian warplane, I think there’s going to be hell to pay, and there should be,” McCain said.
The ones that do the hell-paying at times like these are uniformed Americans, directed by our commander in chief.
But President Barack Obama isn’t confrontational. Hours after the Malaysian airliner was shot down, some of his critics began to rip him for not being a man of action. But Obama played it cool, making a general statement about the tragedy and the need to determine if Americans were on board. Then he headed off to New York for two big Democratic political fundraisers closed to the media.
Meanwhile, his foreign policy seems overwhelmed. The shooting down of Malaysia Flight 17 is evidence that the Ukraine-Russia conflict is lurching dangerously out of control. And the same day, Israelis began a ground attack into Gaza targeting Iranian-backed Hamas. Iraq is in increasing turmoil, with Islamic State separatists controlling Fallujah and Mosul. And in Syria, the forgotten Christians who remain there are being terrorized by foreign fighters.
The ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, argued Thursday for more pressure against Putin by NATO.
“I think the equation has totally changed,” Engel said. “We are going into a new dimension when we start to talk about a passenger airliner. These are not warplanes. These are innocent civilians. It is an act of terror. That’s what it is.”
But innocent civilians were killed 26 years ago too. The best way to make sure that more innocents don’t die is to calm down and take a step back and think.
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