What we can learn from the loss of 269 passengers

I see it,visually and on radar.… The light is flashing.… What are instructions?” All of us in the free world remember the chilling words of Soviet pilot 805 concerning Korean Air Lines Flight 007: “Now I will try a rocket.… I am closing on the target.… I have executed the launch.… The target is destroyed.”

“How could they do it?” we exclaimed. Then, with a touch of bitterness, we may have recalled the old Cold War battle cry, “You can always trust a Communist—to be a Communist!” It was as if the Soviet government were determined to prove this was so.

The Korean pilot and his 269 civilian passengers ranging in age from 4 to about 70 flew far above the clouds in passage from Alaska to Korea. They were serenely unaware that they were miles off course and flying over a highly sensitive Soviet military establishment. Then, without warning, a soviet Su-15 interceptor launched the missile that blasted a planeload of people from the air.

We Must Understand Soviet Fears

Why would the Soviets do it? I think of myself as an essentially p fair-minded person. I remember the Golden Rule and try to put myself in the other person’s shoes. But long years of Russian history have created for the Soviets a paranoid fear of invasion. The flat plains of their Western borders invited enemies, making defense almost impossible. Rome, Sweden, Turkey, France, Britain, Austria, Hungary, Germany in World War I, then a generation later Germany again in World War II—all remind every Russian citizen that his very racial name, Slavic, means slave. And now the United States and its allies ring their military forces around the edges of the Soviet empire. And add to this the Mongul invasions from past centuries, the Japanese occupation of lower Sakhalin Island in 1905 after the Russo-Japanese War, to say nothing of the constant Soviet fear of China, the colossus of the East.

Yes, I can understand the Soviet fear of invasion and how, for them, self-defense has become paranoia. That explains Article 36 of the Soviet Border Law Code: “Use weapons and military technology for … repulsing violators of the state border of the USSR on land, water, and in the air … in cases when stopping the violation cannot be achieved by other means.” In today’s nuclear world with threatening war on every side, I can understand the order to shoot down air flights that trespass sensitive areas along borders.

Chilling Pattern Toward Human Life

But 269 men, women, and children shot down in an unarmed civilian passenger plane!

Article continues below

The evidence seems overwhelming that either (1) the Soviet pilot knew this was a civilian plane that might or might not have also been engaged in spy activity, or (2) he did not know whether it was a civilian plane. In either case, the pilot, his ground crew, and the general who approved the action knew that it might well be a civilian plane filled with passengers. And the Soviets were unprepared or unwilling to take adequate precautions to insure that they would not be shooting down a commercial passenger plane that had simply wandered off course.

This was not the first time such an incident had occurred. In April 1978, another Korean civilian passenger plane flew over Soviet air space. The Russian interceptor shot off 15 feet of its wing and killed two passengers, but the pilot managed to get the planeload of people back to ground safely. In that incident, the Korean pilot had given the distress signal and indicated by the internationally agreed-upon sign of turning on his landing lights that he would follow the instructions and guidance of the interceptor plane. But the Soviet pilot shot the passenger plane down anyway.

Philosophy Does Affect Actions

Events like these tell us something about the mindset of the Soviet leadership and its military establishment. They demonstrate a different view of human life and what it means to be human. Officially, at least, Soviet leadership is committed to a philosophy of dialectical materialism: a human being is essentially a thing. He can be used, and then becomes disposable when he gets in the way. He has no inalienable rights or inherent dignity stemming from God’s image in him. Such values are essentially inconsistent with a merely one-dimensional materialistic view of mankind.

Against this stands a Christian view of humanity that finds its deepest expression in the most familiar verse in all the Bible—John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.…” By creation God made me—and every other human—a creature of infinite value. By redemption he demonstrated that I, along with every other human person, still have infinite value in spite of sin. The Christian knows that humans are not expendable. Every human being is of infinite value to our God, and therefore must be held in infinite value by us.

Fortunately for our world, neither communism nor Marxist materialism is a monolithic structure always on the side of evil. Christians are not alone in setting a high value on life. By natural revelation, and in some cases by direct borrowing from biblical revelation, many non-Christians recognize the uniqueness of humankind. Many Muslims, Buddhists, and those of other faiths recognize the inherent worth of man. There is much truth in many religions, and even in dialectical materialism. It is precisely these pieces of truth that give non-Christian religions their religious and moral power over mankind.

Article continues below

And unfortunately, Christians, committed to the doctrine that God created us in his own image and that every human is the object of God’s redemptive love, have not always acted accordingly. Remember the Thirty Years’ War in Central Europe or, closer to home, some of the more unpleasant scenes from the recent war in Vietnam? Professing Christians are not always good; professing Marxists are not always bad.

My point is simply this: At the core of the Christian view is the infinite worth of each human. By contrast, Soviet leadership is avowedly committed to a philosophy of materialism, rejecting the Christian view. Given its current paranoid fear of invasion, the Soviet leadership only acted consistently with its own basic view of mankind in shooting dow KAL Flight 007 at the price of 269 passengers lives.

Free World Response

Where does that leave us in the free world? Some representatives of the so-called New Right call us to a renewal of the Cold War of two decades ago. To them, an apology with indemnity followed by serious negotiations to avoid a repetition of this tragedy is not enough. They say the Soviets are wholly evil. They are uncivilized barbarians, and we must be prepared to destroy them or they will destroy us. Therefore, we must exact an appropriate vengeance. We must cut off all negotiations with the Soviets. We must stop scientific and cultural exchanges. We must revoke the grain agreement. We must call off the arms negotiations. And above all, we must build up our nuclear stockpile and conventional weaponry to the point where we can crush any Soviet aggression.

Unfortunately, such actions would in most cases hurt us far more than the Communists. Isolating ourselves from the Soviets and refusing to negotiate with them will not stop the building of their war machine. And we have no evidence that Soviet communism will simply disappear from our earthly scene.

By contrast with the New Right, the traditional liberal all too often deludes himself by thinking that the Soviets really hold to a noble system. Their unruly and unjust actions are caused by us. We goad them into such behavior. If we would only stop threatening them, reduce or renounce armaments, and start talking with them, all would be well.

Article continues below

Such a view is blind to the avowed philosophy of Soviet leadership, and denies the reality of human depravity—Russian as well as American. Such a view is utterly irresponsible in its assessment of Soviet actions.

Ostracizing the Soviet Union as a parish among nations will not make it go away. Rushing into an ever-escalating arms race can only place a crushing burden upon ourselves as well as on the Soviets; and in the end, it is most likely to lead to our own annihilation as a people. But trusting the Communists to be “good boys” is only asking them to deny their nature.

A Realistic Christian Middle Way

We must see the Soviets for what they are and wisely map our course accordingly. We must call the Western world to a serious renewal of the disarmament discussions. We must seek justice by law, negotiation, and arbitration. We must do what we can to alleviate Soviet fear of invasion ingrained in them through the centuries.

But, because we do believe in their depravity as well as our own, we will seek disarmament that can be checked. We will seek to meet their threats to world peace with firmness and strength. Because we place infinite value on human life and freedom, we strive for justice, oppose war, and struggle for mutual disarmament. But because we also believe in depravity, we must be prepared, as a last resort, to stop violence even by violence.

Let us remember the massacre of 007. But as Christian people, let us not react with blind hate. Nor with the sticky sentimentalism that denies the depravity of man and ignores the history of Marxist philosophy and action. Rather, let us respond as becomes Christian people—“wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.