The 19th century military maxim that “time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted” is at the heart of liberal peace. Pervasive surveillance, the collection of “big data” and Baumanesque “wars of reconnaissance” have been used in an attempt to craft a universe of known, absolute quantity: a political universe patrolled by the forces of NATO, surveilled in minute detail by GCHQ and NSA and recorded in every moment by CNN and CCTV. Yet perhaps psychological unease at the disappearance of flight MH370 exposes our reliance upon a controlled, secure and intimately known world as a sham. It signals to us all an uncomfortable message: that we can disappear off the radar anytime, anywhere.
The logician’s nemesis is infinity. How can you have a logic founded upon a quantity that is everywhere and nowhere simultaneously? Of unknowable dimensions? A world without end? But mathematics is entirely dependent upon the concept of infinity, even while some mathematicians paradoxically work to make it disappear. Perhaps our carefully constructed liberal universe is faced with a similar conundrum: that an infinite Global Void lurks behind the façade of a known world, a yawning chasm into which it is possible for all of us to disappear without a trace?
During the 20th century, disappearances mostly dwelled in their own tiny curled-up dimensions, invisible beyond the boundaries of firsthand experience. The terror in the hearts of the mothers of the Argentina’s “disappeared” was not clearly transmitted across the globe, or if so, those vibrations were at best weak and intermittent. Of course, the majority of people who vanished in the 20th century did not do so tangibly at first; they simply got bagged up as surplus to our idea of what it is to be human – folks who were called women, blacks, Jews, gypsies and Tutsis for example – only to alchemically reappear on the other side of the void. Yet the real horrors of these disappearances were also confined in tightly wound dimensions, so that the waves from their tsunamis broke early and crashed harmlessly against the liberal bulwarks as a sentimental guilt or bellicosity while the black holes of terror at the center of these events remained safely quarantined from our political universe.
In the 21st century we have become used to a globalized pornography of violence and suffering, so that it ceases to have meaning or affection. Even the global “spectaculars” among terrorist events of the early part of the century have had their visceral impact dulled by cultural bombardments of graphic violence. Whatever causes are eventually attributed to the vanishing of flight MH370, it demonstrates a new and much more powerful vortex of terror, the globalization of disappearance and the creation of a Global Void through which everyone experiences the terrible possibility of vanishing into thin air.
The response to MH370 shows how the tiny dimensions of the disappeared have rolled out into a global membrane of psychotic anguish, whose reverberations blast our eardrums with existential fears. “Where on earth is that plane?” All at once, as if in the aftermath of a big bang, the black holes of terror at the heart of every disappearance have ballooned and conflated into a vast and terrible Global Void into which we are all in danger of falling: as if every one of us were clinging to the scorching girders of the World Trade Center, awaiting our inevitable evaporation.
Evidence for the Global Void is manifold: Madeleine McCann and Malaysian Airlines occupy the front page of the BBC web site as I write this article, as do the reinforcing efforts of our liberal polity to guard its stealthy boundaries with resilient frontiersmen. As the Global Void begins to tear our political universe apart, is it not incumbent upon us to reconnect with those it has already sucked in, and to reconsider what is emerging on the other side? Maybe examining how we have inflated the void rather than desperately attempting to police its nonexistent borders would be a more fruitful course of action? Perhaps, before it’s too late, we too should reconsider what is essential to our political universe, and set off on a new journey to, as Buzz Lightyear says, infinity and beyond.
In April 1943, on a fine hot Maltese morning, my uncle, Peter Fennell, climbed into his bomber and took off to patrol the Mediterranean. His plane and the entire crew of five Britons and Australians were never seen again. Peter lived in another political universe: His disappearance was unfortunate, but the ripples flowing from this event only lapped the borders of my family. My grandmother, in particular, found it difficult to understand and accept his death. His brothers and sister searched for him tirelessly across the stratosphere of officialdom, but never found a trace. Our family understood that disappearance is the most tortuous form of violence, because it lives on in our imaginations as a resilient psychosis of loss. “Where is Peter? What kind of hell did he endure?” Ultimately my grandmother understood her son’s disappearance not as a void but as a kind of poetry: a resonance that ensured his immortality and that of his family. I still listen to that cadence, as I am sure do all those who have known the disappeared.