Death Rays from Outer Space

Here’s an article that reads like an X-Files episode: Invisible pulsing rays! Airplanes that fall from the sky! Government coverups! The point: To solve the unsolved mystery of TWA Flight 800. The claim: That the plane may have been accidentally downed by electromagnetic rays emanating from military aircraft and destroyers travelling nearby. The author: A Harvard professor of … aesthetics? The real mystery, though, is why the story was emblazoned last April on the cover of that newsletter for high-minded literary Brahmins, The New York Review of Books–and why, last week, in the same publication’s pages, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board stepped forth to debate the author.

The theory is so elegantly paranoid Culturebox longs to believe it. It goes like this: 1. The skies are alive with powerful surges of electromagnetic energy radiating from the high-tech war planes that crisscross the heavens rehearsing their maneuvers. 2. The military, having lost planes and helicopters to these waves–which wreak havoc with a plane or ship’s electrical system–has created shields to protect its vessels against them. 3. Civilian planes have not been similarly protected. 4. The spark that ignited TWA 800’s fuel tank could have been caused by one of these misdirected power surges, since there were several military planes, helicopters, and even a naval destroyer travelling nearby at the time. 5. The NTSB has negligently failed to consider this possibility.

What really charms Culturebox, though, is the story’s intellectual-as-underdog angle. The author, Elaine Scarry, is a scholar of literature and moral philosophy. She was writing a study of the social contract that exists between the military and the civilian population in a democracy, when she came across on article on electromagnetic interference (EMI) and decided to follow up. 19,000 words and many long footnotes later, here she is, demanding that the NTSB investigate–and there they are, paying lip service to her seemingly crankish request by saying that yes, yes, they have, and that further tests are being conducted.

One wee problem with Scarry’s scenario is that few of the experts she cites actually think it’s likely. Physicist and electrical engineer D.V. Giri peer-reviewed the piece for the NYROB and recommended publication. Nonetheless, he tells Culturebox, “It is not likely. … It takes an extremely powerful signal to come that far and result in this sequence of events. The source has to be so powerful, and the signal has to find some coupling path to the fuel sensors, and that’s not easy because there are many obstacles in between.”

On the other hand, as another of Scarry’s experts, Martin Shooman–the author of a NASA study on EMI and a specialist on risk assessment–puts it: “Most accidents are a sequence of rare circumstances. If you asked people about a lot of accidents, if you said: Could this happen? They’d say: This is implausible.”

At the very least, Culturebox, whose summer vacation begins tomorrow on a flight that follows the route of TWA 800, is alarmed at the prospect of being a passenger on an unshielded aircraft. Shooman says American commercial airplane manufacturers are aware of the problem, but consider the cost of correcting it prohibitive-especially if their European competitors aren’t required to follow suit. Culturebox is not comforted. It shouldn’t take a moral philosopher to point out that that attitude doesn’t exactly conform to the social contract, whether between her and the military, or between her and the military contracters who also build civilian aircraft that are supposed to get her to Paris safely.

Puppeteering 101: As an exercise in spin analysis, Culturebox puts this question to you, dear reader: Who looks more like a buffoon in the wake of James Fallows’s leaving U.S. News, Mortimer Zuckerman, who pretends he didn’t fire him, or Harry Evans, who doth protest too much that he did?

Culturebox votes for Evans. According to Culturebox’s sources inside U.S. News, Evans did not “think it was time for a change,” as he told the New York Times. In fact, ever since he went to work for Zuckerman, Evans made nothing but gestures of support toward Fallows. Zuckerman, on the other hand, was openly going around Washington offering Fallows’ job to other editors.

So how did a spinmeister like Evans get stuck in the humiliating position of jumping up and down to claim responsibility for something he didn’t have the authority or possibly even the inclination to do? For one thing, Fallows gave Evans and Zuckerman no time to get their story straight. Fallows and his boss were negotiating the terms of his departure–specifically, the severance package–and when Zuckerman refused to give Fallows one, Fallows announced that he’d been fired before Zuckerman or Evans could.

Culturebox discerns a tragic poetic justice in all this. Evans was in Fallows’s shoes when he was being pushed out as head of Random House six months ago, which raises the question: Why didn’t he see Fallows’ move coming? The answer says everything about what Evans has become. Fallows is a writer who strayed into the snakepit of media-executivedom for a brief, unhappy stint. He doesn’t need a cover story or another job as a high-powered media executive, so he has no incentive to lie about his departure. Evans, once a writer and the kind of editor who’d stand up to Rupert Murdoch and get fired for his trouble, is now a man for whom announcing to the world that you were fired is unthinkable.

Judith Shulevitz