Human sanity can fluctuate like the wind

A file picture of an Germanwings Airbus A320 registration

Article published in The Daily Telegraph 27th march 2015

Since 1994 probably 600 people have been deliberately killed by pilots crashing their planes into the ground. In a heartbeat, a person charged with protecting the lives of all on board has become a lethal weapon. Andreas Lubitz is only the latest in the line of those who decide to commit suicide from the air. The death total remains an estimate because some of the evidence is disputed – as with the Egyptair disaster in 1999 which killed 217. What’s unusual in this most upsetting of recent crashes in France is that we know for certain the pilot was both suicide and killer; judge, jury and executioner of 150 souls.

The question that remains so troubling is not about suicide. We generally understand that people can tire of life or lose the will to live it. What profoundly disturbs is this. If you must end it all why not choose the privacy of your own bathroom – why the need to take so many others down with you?

I can think of two strong rationales. Both require an understanding that human beings are neither stable nor very rational and that in order to commit this sort of atrocity you must of necessity be disconnected from notions of empathy. It doesn’t mean you are “pure evil”. But would indicate a fragmentation of the personality at a time of desperation.

The first account would suggest the pilot harboured a controlled but unlimited fury with the gods, life, partners, employers or some aspect of politics, philosophy and economics which made him want to demonstrate his reaction on a world stage. “You think I am angry? You will now”. It suggests a desire to enjoy a supreme moment of power – to play God, or rather the devil – and invite others literally to share your funeral. An individual who otherwise seems rational is suffering from an intense but masked depression – and it’s when the depression slightly lifts that revenge is taken because that’s when the energy to act becomes available.

The second involves a notion that our sanity can fluctuate almost as much as the wind. In some cases, normal behaviour is reversed as a brief window of psychosis opens in the psyche. The individual no longer makes the connections we rely on. It isn’t appalling to kill others in a mass act of slaughter, it’s neutral or even worse somehow ‘fitting’. “My life is pointless and by that token so is yours”. One moment he’s joking to air traffic control. The next, mass murdering with absolute and focused intent. The problem with many murderers is that they really wouldn’t hurt a fly until they do.

Note: The above was written at a time of limited information about the motives of the killer Andreas Lubitz.  A day later it emerged that he had told his former girlfriend he would become famous for changing the way air travel systems are organised…

On 26th March 2015, I was quoted as follows in the same newspaper:

The compulsion to kill oneself and a random assortment of innocent people can only be explained by “fury or a psychosis”, said Phillip Hodson, a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.  A suicidal pilot might be so infuriated – and so determined to take revenge on his employer in the most dramatic way possible – that he becomes “temporarily psychopathic in the sense that you cannot empathise with the passengers behind you,” said Mr Hodson.  “Human being can go into windows of psychosis from an apparently normal way of life.”  Now that five pilots have chosen this method of suicide in 20 years – after decades without a single incident of this kind – the danger is that a taboo might have been broken.  “One of the worries is about copycats,” added Mr Hodson. “Human beings think of doing things because other people have done them.”

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