Tragedies always cause an outburst of emotion. A civilian plane is shot down. People die, many people. Words of condolence seem poor, inexpressive, in the face of so terrible a catastrophe.
Yet we live in a world immersed in politics, a world where it is impossible to let emotion bury reason, to subordinate logic to our feelings.
We cannot revive those who passed on. Yet the memory of innocent victims demands that those who live, first, analyze the facts of this tragic event. Second, our judgments must not be based on emotion, but on logically inescapable conclusions of an analysis of facts.
I will start with the facts:
1. The South Korean plane penetrates Soviet air space by up to 300 miles, twice overflying closed security areas (Sakhalin and Kamchatka).
2. For over two hours the Boeing's crew does not reply to warning signals from Soviet pilots.
3. US and Japanese ground staff, particularly military ground staff, keep track not only of the ''lost'' plane but of its interceptors, yet do not warn the plane it is in a dangerous situation.
Now, I would like to suggest the following task: Find the most likely hypothesis, the one most free of contradictions, to explain these facts.
The first that comes to mind is technical failure or crew error. But logically, it is impossible to imagine so great a chain of terrible blunders and failures as to explain the above-cited facts. This simplest of hypotheses fails: It is too unlikely.
One hears other, more exotic, ones: The crew wanted to save fuel and so ''cut'' its prescribed route. . . . A passenger was using a mini-calculator and somehow fouled the plane's computer. . . . Mysterious terrorists were trying to hijack the plane. . . . Or even that all was set up by the late Rep. Lawrence McDonald, ready to die ''to prove how terrible communists are.'' In principle, anything is possible that does not contradict the laws of physics. Yet none of these hypotheses, taken seriously, can explain all, I repeat all, of the facts. . . .
Hypothesis: The crew intentionally, for reasons having nothing to do with the conveyance of passengers, changed course. . . . I know Americans will find it unpleasant to read this. They do not want to believe anyone is capable of risking the lives of innocent passengers to satisfy ''curiosity'' about our airspace. But logic dictates that conclusion. I am ready to accept another, but none has convincingly been offered.
Still, if the Soviet pilots had known they were dealing with a civilian jet with passengers aboard, I am sure events would have gone differently. The pilots could not know this. The plane did not make radio contact or answer internationally accepted signals. You may say: But the plane bears identification marks. But these can be seen in daylight. It is virtually impossible to see them at night. It could not occur to our pilots or land-based anti-air defense that this stubbornly silent plane - overflying Kamchatka and Sakhalin, barred to civilian craft - was on a routine flight. . . .
The pilots could not have doubted they were facing a US spy plane - whether a ''normal'' RC135, or a specially equipped Boeing 747. This is the tragic chain of events that led to catastrophe.