You’ve read about the young Germanwings co-pilot who apparently locked the pilot out of the cockpit, took over the controls, and killed 150 people in a ghastly crash. We can only speculate about Andreas Lubitz’s motive, but the evidence so far fits a familiar pattern. About half of rampage killers have shown signs of psychiatric disturbance. By contrast, mental illness plays only a marginal role in ordinary violent crime. What makes rampage killing different?
For one thing, rampage is a spectacle, and planes make a spectacular weapon. The Columbine killers imagined crashing a plane into skyscrapers to amaze the world. They imagined Hollywood producers bidding in a frenzy for “their story.” The 9/11 flyboys wanted even God to salute. And Andreas Lubitz, the co-piot, also dreamed of capturing world attention. A former girlfriend said he told her last year that “One day I’ll do something that will change the whole system, and then all will know my name and remember it.”
She thought he crashed the plane because he had health problems that would make his dream of being a pilot “nearly impossible.” On the fatal day he was ignoring—or defying—a doctor’s note classifying him unfit to fly. In effect, the crash was his reaction to the death of his dream on that day and maybe forever. You can see the logic: gravity like fate forces the heroic dream down from the heights to destruction. But if the co-pilot takes the controls, he can feel heroic mastering doom.
A high-ranking investigator, speaking with the newspaper Die Welt, characterized Mr. Lubitz’s writing as a window into the dark world of illness the co-pilot had skillfully concealed from outsiders. Lubitz was being treated for depression, and had shown “suicidal tendencies” in psychotherapy several years before receiving his pilot’s license. . But he must have been suffering from stress and anxiety too, since in conversations, hisgirlfriend recalled,(link is external) he “would suddenly freak out and yell at me.” He had nightmaresabout crashing. “We always talked a lot about work and then he became a different person. He became upset about the conditions we worked under: too little money, fear of losing the contract, too much pressure.” She said they finally broke up because he scared her.
Lubitz had to take a break from his pilot training, reportedly because of “burnoutsyndrome.” If he was suffering depression, anxiety, and stress, the inner distress saps vitality. It can “burn up” so much energy for life that personality becomes—or threatens to become—a dead husk. That terror is the horror of nothingness. Alcohol or drugs may bring a brief charge of energy and dull the alarm. The build-up to a spectacular rampage can be a stimulant. If you obsess over it, as the depressive Columbine killer Dylan Klebold did, the stimulant can be addictive. A woman who saw Mohammed Atta at flight school in Florida saw deadened depression in his eyes. What she couldn’t see were the obsessive prayers and 9/11 plans that kept him going even as he was already half out of life.
Survival instinct makes us want to be somebody. We fear death, especially the nothingness of death. We want our lives to matter. If your life is in trouble and you realize that death is inescapable, you’re trapped unless you take charge of your own destruction. Then you become the pilot again: the captain of your soul. A martyr.
But what if you take 149 people with you? In the ancient world, pharaohs and emperors had servants killed to keep them company in the afterlife. This, too, is a variety of rampage killing. After death, the ruler wants to keep the fantastic attention he’s been used to. It’s what made him a king and not just another ordinary doomed mortal with a scepter. And since the terror comes partly from of losing all your powers and of being utterly alone, there’s strength in numbers. What’s more, by taking others with you, you ease your envyand resentment of survivors.
Judging who lives and who dies, you feel the special power of the gods, as Atta did. Instead of living in fear of nothingness, you make an impact. One day I’ll do something that will change everything. It may be sadistic and vengeful, but to the killer it also feels right. How can this be?
The terror and the unfairness of death—Why me?—unsettles our core sense of what’s right: the sense of self and world that we develop all our lives. When all’s well, things feelright. In distress or under stress, we’re apt to feel alien, detached, queasy, “out of it,” not to mention terrified. The terror can show up as fear of death or an enemy or a crash, something outside of you: something coming toward you.
But the core terror is the terror of annihilation, your terror of everything, including you. There’s nothing to hold onto. If you know you’re terminally ill, you’re likely to daydream at some point about some great final gesture, a heroic sacrifice. It would be consoling to feel people affirming that you matter. After all, as New Yorker cartoons joke, death is the ultimate loss of self-esteem. Hence the compulsion, even in a blaze of infamy, to feel right.
But how, you ask, can anyone feel right about slaughtering innocent people?
One answer is that the self is not a thing. You can’t take your self out to clean and polish it. The self is experience, and experience that needs feedback and recognition from others to feel substantial—to feel right. This is why social death—losing job, family, friends,identity—is so threatening. By contrast, a blaze of infamy compels unlimited attention. Yes, for the suicidal killer it’s only imagined attention. But attention from real people would open up the secret inner life of illness and terror.
Needless to say, not everyone in Andreas Lubitz’s situation would behave as he did. Secrecy must have magnified and distorted his desperation. For him, secrecy was right. In this late-industrial age, efficiency demands rules and allows few taboos to be shared. Anguish becomes matter for therapeutic culture, which doesn’t always communicate with business culture—as in Lubitz’s crumpled note from his doctor.
But then, one reason the horror of the crash grips us is the detail of the captain locked out of the cockpit and beating on the door, trying to communicate with his other half, so to speak. The captain is us, our agent, the baffled social self, shut out by the cunning unreality of terror and cold rage. In a paradox worthy of Greek tragedy, the fortified door was a technical solution that invited the threat of mass murder that it was meant to prevent. Sometimes fear is more dangerous than an open door.
Resources used in this essay:
Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (1973).
Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon (2015)
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