Hidden Dangers


Germanwings memorial
A memorial of flowers and candles at Düsseldorf Airport for victims of the Germanwings crash. (Photo: .Hans135797531/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Suicide when there are no obvious precursors is difficult to understand or even difficult for many people to believe possible. We expect people to indicate through evidence of depression or stress or more directly through appeals for help that, their minds are drifting to ending it all. The indications may be indirect through a developing drinking habit, or unusual difficulties in relating to others. But when people kill themselves without any of these cues obviously available fundamental questions are raised about what was going on that apparently no one noticed. Yet in our studies of suicides we found that as many as one in 10 occurred without any overt prior indicators.

The significance of this was brought home when a 27-year-old, highly intelligent, carefully selected and trained, professional pilot, employed by one of the most prestigious airlines in the world, planned to kill himself and all 149 others on his plane, without anyone who worked with him being aware of his intentions.

The degree of planning that Andreas Lubitz exhibited before he crashed the aircraft he was co-piloting shows just how much forethought had gone into his suicide. It is now clear that he cautiously arranged to be alone in the cockpit then locked out his pilot, using a safety lock meant to prevent terrorist attack, so that he could kill himself and destroy the plane and murder everyone else on board. The aircraft’s black box has revealed that Lubitz had had a dry run towards crashing the plane on the journey out that day. We don’t know how that was explained to his pilot or how he still managed to lull him into leaving Lubitz alone in the cockpit.

The bitter irony of Lubitz using an anti-terrorist device to enable him to cause such an outrage will not be lost as there are further attempts to shore up what is always the potentially weakest part of any complex system, the human element.  But a crucial debate is now well underway into every aspect of Lubitz and his life. What might be called a psychological autopsy is being carried out. Instead of examining his body, although that may just reveal something important, there is a desperate need to gain all the evidence possible to dissect his mind.

Soon after the crash, a six-month gap in his training and the relatively few flying hours he had clocked were being considered a something more sinister. But now that his full psychiatric history has been revealed it is clear that this was a man who vindictively hid his depression and suicidal ideation. There are sad parallels to the killing of six pedestrians in Glasgow by a runaway refuse lorry when the driver collapsed from an epileptic seizure. He had kept his medical history secret from his employers in order to get the job. Once again the confessional of the doctor’s surgery hid dangerous secrets. But where brain seizures can be recorded as an objective fact it is more difficult to delineate when depressions and thoughts of killing oneself will spill over into action.

We all harbour secrets and these can be poisonous if they fester unexpressed. The lack of any proclamation of the purpose or target of the destruction other than the suicide at the heart of it does point to Lubitz nursing a secret anger that burst out in this appalling way. The recording from the flight’s black box revealed no final cry of achievement, just steady breathing. No one has claimed that the 149 totally innocent people were killed for some greater cause. No suicide note has yet emerged that attempted to explain the personal reason for the terrible act.

Parallels to spree killers who shoot their work mates who they think have insulted them come to mind. Vester Flanagan’s shooting of his erstwhile colleagues at WDBJ7 TV was an outrage that he filmed as his testament. Like most other spree killers this was an act of that ended in his predictable suicide. Doubtless Flanagan’s narcissism thought his act was heroic, as so many others have.

Anders Breivik left a prolix manifesto and expected to die in gunfire from police reaction also be thought he was doing something noble. Flanagan, Breivik and other spree killings provide explanations, however bizarre they might seem to anyone other than the murderer. These killers are invariably known as somewhat strange or difficult people. Or at the very least there is some history that can be found to give personal meaning to their actions. But a pilot? A person whose whole training and raison d’être is to protect and care for his passengers? They even take the plane above the clouds so their fellow travellers can have their meals undisturbed by turbulence. How can that, almost sacred mission be so totally abused?

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in this question.

Is it possible one anonymous pilot so totally relied on to do the right thing by those he never meets and hardly ever sees felt some inner conflict in what he was expecting of his powerful role? Did he expect himself to be a hero living a great adventure but began increasingly to see himself as a victim, put upon by forces he could not overcome? Perhaps the nearest equivalent is the biblical Samson. Overtaken by the Philistines, deprived of his sight he could only destroy them and their temple by bringing it all crashing down on himself. His tragedy makes him, in his own eyes, a hero again. But perhaps we will never know who he thought were the Philistines.


David Canter

Professor David Canter, the internationally renowned applied social researcher and world-leading crime psychologist, is perhaps most widely known as one of the pioneers of "Offender Profiling" being the first to introduce its use to the UK.

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