What began Wednesday morning as a wild internet rumor had by lunchtime Thursday become close to a settled—though still scarcely imaginable—fact: that Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752, a Boeing 737 with 176 people aboard, had crashed near Tehran not due to technical issues, as Iranian authorities initially claimed, but as a result of an Iranian antiaircraft missile strike.
While there was no direct evidence of a shoot-down in the first hours after the crash, the incident had seemed suspicious from the get-go. Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 took off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport at 6:12 a.m. local time, just hours after Iran’s military had launched multiple ballistic missiles at U.S. air bases in Iraq. President Trump had threatened that America would attack 52 targets in Iran if the country retaliated for the U.S. assassination of its top general, Qasem Soleimani; it stands to reason that Iranian air defense forces must have been on the highest possible state of alert. What’s more, the plane disappeared from air traffic control screens abruptly, and without the crew issuing a mayday—all suggestive of a sudden, catastrophic event. Trump’s bluster and unpredictability, lauded by some of his allies as a strategic virtue, almost certainly contributed to the conditions that allowed this grievous mistake to be made. This is the sort of thing that happens during a war.
For the first 24 hours, however, the U.S. and its allies said nothing about a shoot-down. Reuters reported that “the initial assessment of Western intelligence agencies was that the plane had suffered a technical malfunction.” Then, on Thursday, Newsweek quoted “one Pentagon and one U.S. senior intelligence official” as saying that the plane had been shot down. Hours later, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau confirmed the story at a press conference.
If any lessons can be drawn from such a tragedy, one is that during times of high military tension, the electronic signals that identify an airliner as noncombatant might not be enough to protect it from attack. Amid the fog of life-or-death stress, cognitive tunnel vision prevents equipment operators from assimilating unfamiliar information. Automatic behavior prevails over rational consideration, and an innocent flight becomes a target. The only way to ensure safety is to steer clear, or not take off in the first place.
(Given the debacle’s shambolic nature, by the way, it seems only fitting that the victim plane should be a Boeing, a company whose reputation has been so battered that the revelation that PS752 had fallen victim to a shoot-down, rather than mechanical failure, came as a kind of reprieve, sending its stock on a macabre upswing. But more bad news lay in store. Hours after Trudeau’s press conference, Boeing released a trove of internal documents to Congress and the media that showed, among other things, that Boeing workers had disparaged regulators behind their backs. “These communications,” the company said in an accompanying apology note, “are completely unacceptable.”)
While the debacle of PS752’s shoot-down is shocking, it is far from unique. In fact, it’s an almost uncanny reverse image to Iran Air flight 655, which also involved a passenger jet that had departed Tehran amid heightened tensions. On July 3, 1988, the guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes was engaged in the Strait of Hormuz when it detected an Airbus A300 passenger jet that had coincidentally headed in its direction. The crew was on high alert and jumpy; the Iran-Iraq war was still raging, and a year earlier, another U.S. Navy ship had been hit by the Iraqi Air Force, killing 37 sailors. Despite the fact that the Iranian passenger jet was transmitting a civilian identification code, the Vincennes mistook the plane for an attacking Iranian Air Force F-14 and fired two missiles at it. The plane reportedly disintegrated and all 290 aboard died.
In another eerie coincidence, PS752 marks the second time in a decade that Ukraine has been involved in the shoot-down of a civilian jet. In July 2014, a Malaysia Airlines 777 was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was struck by a Russian Buk antiaircraft missile over eastern Ukraine. All 298 aboard were killed. At the time, the region was embroiled in a proxy battle between Kremlin-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government, and for months the Western media assumed that the missile must have been fired accidentally by clueless militiamen. That turned out not to be the case: The missile had been launched from a transporter driven across the border from Russia in an operation reportedly coordinated by men with links to Russian military and intelligence agencies, for purposes that remain unclear.
PS752 calls to mind as well Korean Air Lines Flight 007, yet another airliner shot down by a Russian missile. In 1983 the Seoul-bound 747 drifted off course and entered Soviet airspace near Kamchatka. Cold War tensions being at their peak, the Soviets scrambled fighter jets to intercept. Amid misunderstanding and miscommunication, the order was given to fire and a Sukhoi Su-15 unleashed two K-8 air-to-air missiles. The huge airliner was not immediately destroyed, however. For several minutes the crew struggled to regain control of the damaged aircraft, until at last it entered a spiral dive and crashed into the Sea of Japan. All 269 passengers and crew members died.
Of these three tragedies, in only one case—the Vincennes—did the responsible government apologize. The Soviet Union kept lying about KAL 007 until the day it toppled. As for MH17, to this day it’s unknown who in Russia’s chain of command gave the order to fire or why they did so.
Hopefully the parties responsible for PS752 will admit their culpability and make full amends. Iran in all likelihood shot down the plane—but Trump certainly bears a measure of responsibility.
This article ran in Vanity Fair on January 10, 2020.