A Sad Spectacle
October 31, 2013
It’s been three-and-a-half years since the Polish president’s plane crashed near Smolensk, western Russia, killing all 96 aboard, but the wound to the nation’s collective psyche refuses to heal. In recent weeks, the debate about the disaster has grown even more bitter, due to a series of comic (however inappropriate the word may sound in reference to a national trauma) gaffes and conflicting pronouncements made by a group of opposition-linked experts probing the causes of the disaster.
Jacek Rońda, a leading figure among the group of experts with links to the conservative Law and Justice (PiS), the country’s second largest political party—has publicly admitted to lying in an television interview. Sporting a satisfied smile on his face and barely batting an eyelid, Rońda, a professor, revealed that, when talking about the plane crash to a prominent journalist recently, he had been “bluffing” when he claimed he possessed a document that supposedly contained sensational disclosures about the altitude at which the presidential plane was flying while attempting to land at Smolensk airport.
Earlier Rońda had insisted that he was qualified to evaluate aviation accidents because for many years he had been a Diamond Card frequent flyer with the KLM airline. Another expert from the group probing the crash—which is led by Antoni Macierewicz, a deputy in the lower house of Poland’s parliament and a senior figure in PiS—when asked about his qualifications to investigate the disaster, said he used to make plastic model airplanes as a child.
In a similar vein, a leaked recording of conversations between the group of experts and prosecutors investigating the Smolensk crash has exposed the former to public ridicule, with the media mocking their credentials.
The problem is that this is not some kind of play inspired by the theater of the absurd, but a very real public debate on a national tragedy.
According to a government commission that has investigated the crash and produced an official report with its findings, the direct cause of the crash was that the president’s plane hit a birch tree when coming in to land at Smolensk airport. During one of the many news conferences called by Macierewicz’s team, two of the team’s experts contradicted each other. One argued that the plane had clipped the tree with one of its wings but sustained no damage, while the other expert claimed that there had been an explosion on board the plane at an altitude of 150 meters, far higher than any birch tree grows.
According to popular Polish radio and TV personality Jerzy Owsiak, the founder of the Great Christmas Aid Orchestra annual fundraising drive, Poland’s largest charity initiative, the row over the causes of the Smolensk crash has divided Poles more than arguments about whether the country’s communist leaders were justified in imposing martial law in the early 1980s.
Owsiak, who is widely seen as a moral authority for young people, has called on Macierewicz and his supporters to “put an end to this hour of hate.” Immediately after that appeal, he became the number one enemy of the Polish right, as one television station put it.
Martial law was imposed in Poland on Dec. 13, 1981—roughly 32 years ago. It will be interesting to see if the Smolensk plane crash continues to stir debate in 2042. I’ll find out If I’m still alive—I’ll be over 80 by then.