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.