The tragic crash of Germanwings flight 4U 9525 has again highlighted why society needs to better understand mental health… and demonstrated why this goal cannot be realized via the sensational speculation that always surrounds dramatic incidents. The world’s journalists have descended upon the life history of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who is believed to have intentionally crashed his plane after locking the pilot out of the cockpit. The hacks are interviewing former friends and partners, scrabbling through medical records, pestering his employers, in a bid to assemble clues about Lubitz’s motivation. They do this whilst simultaneously stating:
Only Andreas Lubitz will ever know for sure why he flew a plane into an Alpine hillside, killing 150 people.
Nobody ever knows the contents of somebody else’s mind. At best, people foolishly and arrogantly assume they can – until somebody does something unexpected which proves they were wrong. So why do people obsess over the trivial exercise of trying to determine what was in the mind of a person like Lubitz? There are two reasons. Neither flatters human nature. On one hand, it is easy and entertaining to speculate about the state of mind of another person, especially when that person has done something unpredictable, or shocking. We like to talk about people acting ‘out of character’, which is just a roundabout way of saying our assumptions about their character were not reliable. On the other hand, we want to control other people, and we think we can do this by knowing more about them. This is a supreme folly. As Freud originally observed, the conscious part of the human mind does not even know the true extent of what lies in the subconscious. Put simply, none us knows what is in our own mind. Why convince ourselves that we can then know the contents of someone else’s mind, including both the conscious and subconscious? Because, like a primitive who dances for rain, we want to control the world even though the methods we adopt may be ridiculous and futile.
The insidious nature of analysis of Lubitz has lead to many unhelpful pseudo-insights. For example, a former girlfriend claimed Lubitz had told her the following: “one day I’m going to do something that will change the whole system, and everyone will know my name and remember.” Rather than repeat this petty and unverifiable assertion, I would rather ask: which person has never once said something similar? It is perfectly normal for people to have ambitions, dreams, fantasies about changing the world. Young people, in particular, imagine their futures might lead to all sorts of tremendous victories and successes. It is only with the passage of time that people learn to be more realistic. Does that mean every young person is naturally inclined to crash a plane into a mountain? Of course not. It demonstrates that we are foolish for reading too much into mundane everyday aspects of how people behave. We combine hindsight with imagination and start convincing ourselves that we saw things that were never there in the first place.
The most despicable reporting has centred around a recurring observation about Lubitz’s character. People say he was quiet. At times, he was withdrawn. This is what Reuters wrote about Lubitz:
Lubitz was described by acquaintances in his hometown of Montabaur in western Germany as a friendly but quiet man who learned to fly gliders at a local club before advancing to commercial aviation as a co-pilot at Germanwings in 2013.
A friend who met Lubitz six years ago and flew with him in gliding school said he had become increasingly withdrawn over the past year.
Before Lubitz became a co-pilot in late 2013, the friend said the two had gone to movies and clubs together. But he noticed at two birthday parties they attended over the past year that he had retreated into a shell, speaking very little.
“Flying was his life,” said the friend, who agreed to speak to Reuters about Lubitz’s mental state on condition of anonymity. “He always used to be a quiet companion, but in the last year that got worse.”
The world is full of quiet people. They make no trouble. They obey laws. They behave politely to strangers. They are kind and thoughtful. And they probably receive neither the thanks nor the appreciation they deserve, because the world prefers to obsess about the sensational, the shocking, the extravagant and the egocentric. But the fact that Lubitz was a quiet man is now being painted as some kind of telling back story to:
“MAD SUICIDAL ACTION”
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the German airline had an obligation to share information about Lubitz.
“I am careful when there is a judicial inquiry, but everything points to a criminal, mad, suicidal action that we cannot comprehend,” Valls told iTELE.
The lines above came immediately before Reuter’s depiction of Lubitz as a quiet man. Politicians are, by nature, despicable gutter rats, who will say anything to get a headline that makes it seem like they care deeply about human suffering, so long as they need do nothing to actually alleviate that suffering. It is no surprise that a jackass like Valls would sprint to a microphone to pass judgement on the mental state of a man he has never met. Journalists are entitled to report what Valls said, and they are entitled to report what they learned about Lubitz’s character. But they are not entitled to present one as justification for the other, as if being quiet or not enjoying a party is evidence of a disposition towards ‘criminal, mad, suicidal action’.
If quiet behaviour really demonstrates a predisposition towards mental illness with violent consequences, then let us lock everybody in an asylum who has ever been to a party and made less noise than the average guest, or who did not seem to have a good time. We will soon find there are more of us locked inside the asylum than left to run things outside. And the few left outside will be the loud, boorish, pushy, arrogant, self-absorbed fatheads who are already rewarded too highly by a society that favours greed and vanity over introspection and self-awareness.
We need better understanding of mental health, and better treatment of mental illness. That does not begin with jumping to conclusions about the character and motivation of others. Any of us might be mentally ill at some point in our lives. Even if Lubitz was mentally ill in his final days – a fact which has yet to be established, and which may never be established – it would be wrong to connect this to simplistic observations like whether a man is quiet or reserved. Eventually, I hope the human race evolves to a point where we understand that such an ignorant assumption is as wrong as concluding someone is stupid because they are ugly, or extrapolating a person’s character from their race or their gender.
Incessant misguided attempts at cod psychology only excuse us from looking clearly at our straightforward and recurring faults. Lubitz locked the pilot out of the cockpit. Right now, politicians, writers and other egotists are clambering over each other, competing for attention as they loudly demand a change of safety rules, so that nobody can ever be left alone at the controls of an airplane. But the same ship of fools demanded lockable doors in response to an earlier tragedy. Did literally none of them envisage a scenario where the suicide-murderer might be locked inside the cockpit, instead of being locked outside?
A locked door does not know if it is barring entry to a person with good intentions or bad; it cannot tell if the danger is trapped outside or secured within. Lockable doors were supposed to save lives. Now a locked door has cost lives. In another era, the pilot, aided by passengers or crew, may have barged into the cockpit and restrained Lubitz before the plane crashed. Our decision-makers are too idle to have made even this basic risk calculation, but they encourage us to spend countless hours spying on each other, looking for supposedly telltale signs of madness or depression. They do so as a distraction from their failings, because even if our diagnosis were justified, it will not tell us how the patient will behave in practice.
The real lesson to be learned from this crash is that airplanes should be fitted with doors that can be locked and unlocked – from both sides – by the people trusted to enter the cockpit. But such a solution would cost even more money. That is why politicians, businesses and sundry loudmouths would rather misdirect us with pointless speculations about mental health, as if Lubitz’s employers could have been expected to know what Lubitz was going to do, possibly before even Lubitz knew.
Being quiet is not a crime, and the problems of this world will not be fixed by a culture where everybody’s words and actions, or their absence, are treated with suspicion. There are more practical ways to improve the world. To implement them, we must be honest with ourselves, willing to admit past mistakes, and realistic about the risks we take and the price we are prepared to pay to mitigate those risks. How much would we each choose to pay, via a more expensive ticket, for the added safety of better locks on cockpit doors? How much would we choose to pay, not when asked in an emotional moment immediately after a tragedy, but in those cooler moments of reflection whilst we shop around for the cheapest flights available? Learning to live with honesty, learning how to be honest with ourselves as with others, is an essential component of mental health. The reaction to the downing of Germanwings flight 4U 9525, and the gossip over the past behaviour of its co-pilot, demonstrates we are not ready to live in a healthy, honest society.