Mass Murder in the Alps

The Germanwings disaster intrigues me more than most, perhaps because as a psychologist who flies for fun my interests bridge psychology and aviation, and all roads seem to be pointing to the mental health of the copilot who apparently flew the Airbus into the ground, killing himself and 150 others.

Crash investigators are charged with determining the cause of airplane accidents.   Cause is a complex, multi-layered concept.  One can say, for example, that the immediate cause of the Germanwings disaster was the co-pilot’s directing the airplane into a fast descent into the terrain below, causing the airplane and its inhabitants to break into pieces.   But what “caused” the copilot to direct the autopilot to fly the aircraft into the ground?

The word that I hear most often is “suicide,” one of those verbs that disguises itself as a noun.   Because we know that the copilot went onto the internet and looked up ways to kill himself as opposed to ways to commit mass murder we assume his intention was the former, and the others who died were “merely” collateral damage. But does calling the pilot’s action suicide get any deeper at the cause?

Psychologists have come a long way in understanding the ingredients of suicidal behavior.   But it is more difficult to imagine the depth of cognitive distortion, the outrageous amount of blindness that must occur when severely depressed to not feel for the families of others on board.

I have survived the suicide of four of my patients in my career, and scores more who either tried and failed or had strong enough impulses to require hospitalization.   In the vast majority of those situations, the perpetrator and the victim were the same.

I did have one suicidal patient who dealt with his anger toward his father (who had shot him at point blank range when my patient was a teenager) by “putting people in the hospital,” as he used to say.  Occasionally, he targeted police officers for his aggressive attacks, which were certainly suicidal gestures, but each time it occurred the police responded professionally and subdued him.   (On one occasion, two Burbank police officers brought him to my office instead of jail after he attacked a co-worker because they were either insightful or well-trained enough to realize that his aggression was a sign of his suicidality.)

What I don’t understand is the overwhelming number of press reports that refer to the behavior of the copilot as suicide instead of homicide.  One could argue, perhaps not too cleverly, that the copilot’s actions leading to the death of 150 people and his own makes it 150 times more likely to fall under the category of homicide than suicide.

I consider it a character flaw whenever I have difficulty finding compassion for the perpetrator of heinous acts.  Compassion for victims is easy; it is the perpetrators who need it more.  Understanding is helpful in finding compassion, but I don’t know that science will be able to determine the “reasons” why this copilot pointed his airplane’s nose to the ground.   There is no brain left to scan that might reveal a lesion.   We are left only with our theories, our knowledge that depression is often a combination of helplessness, hopelessness, distorted thinking, rage and blame turned inward.

This would not be the first time in history one has used an airplane as a weapon of mass murder.   But most of the others have been in the context of war between nations.   When mass murder takes place in the context of war within one’s own mind, there is no societal sanction to welcome you home.  The punishment of having ended one’s own life in the process does not bring the innocent victims back to life, nor does it lead very far down the road to compassion.

Perhaps more than most I should be able to understand someone whose depression is so great that he is able to transform his own pain into what can and arguably should only be called a case of mass murder-suicide.  But for me that is likely going to require considerably more effort.

Istanbul and the Armenian Genocide

imagesAlthough the Armenian genocide at the hand of Ottoman Turks occurred almost exactly 100 years ago, I have avoided coming to Turkey partly because of feelings similar to those I had when first traveling through Germany in 1975.  Back then, as I felt the gentle swaying of the train and watched the beautiful German landscape slip past me, I couldn’t help but imagine myself being shipped off to a camp to be gassed, my lifeless body then piled in a mound with so many others who shared my fate.  Even though that occurred 30 years after the holocaust ended, as a 21-year-old I couldn’t help but feel the fear that echoed inside me through the generations.  Now, in Turkey, remembering stories of the murder of more than a million Armenians as the world looked away, I know the feelings that I share with my Armenian comrades are irrational; it is not as though the Turks living here today had anything to do with the behavior of their progenitors nearly a century ago.

In the book of Exodus we are told that the sins of the fathers will be visited on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.  Somewhat mysteriously, future generations bear the weight of their ancestors’ sins.   But that is certainly not to say they are responsible for their sins, as Ezekial clarified:  The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son.  The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

For many, apologizing for the behavior of ancestors seems altogether silly.  But for others, it is an essential part of a healing process.  In spite of the flak he received for it, when Bill Clinton apologized for American slavery, some healing occurred.   When Tony Blair apologized for the Irish famine, when the Pope repented for the behavior of the Catholic Church during the holocaust, when the Japanese prime minister apologized for the Second World War, some healing occurred.

Years ago, when teaching a family therapy course at Antioch, I discussed the Armenian genocide in class.   Afterward, a student came up to me and mentioned to me that she was Turkish.   In fact, her father was a Turkish ambassador.  She told me that I should be aware that there is also a Turkish side to the story.  Ever since, I have honestly struggled to learn the Turkish side of the story, just as I have struggled to understand the roots of the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust.  There may be explanations, but I really don’t know that there ever can be an “other side” to genocide.

Healing occurs because genuine apologies make the world a safer place.  Safety comes when we know ourselves and take responsibility for the harm that we are capable of perpetrating.  Or, in the words of the great philosopher Charles Shulz, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Now, sitting on the terrace of my hotel room, overlooking the Bosporus on a warm, sunny spring morning in Istanbul, I think about the kindness, generosity, and sweetness of the four new Turkish friends who chose to spend their hard-earned day off with us yesterday.  One of them proclaimed in a discussion about the enmity that resulted after 9/11 and the subsequent backlash that “terrorism has no religion.”

In six days from now elections will be held that will likely keep Turkey’s president in power.   It is unlikely that this government will reverse its policy of selective memory and move toward truth or reconciliation.  That is sad, but eternal optimist that I am, I can only hope that over time governments will come to better represent the kindness and compassion of the people they govern.

 –written in April 2014 while in Istanbul on my way to Armenia