Germanwings: When Suicidal Depression Turns Into Terrorism

Authorities and investigators are trying to figure out what caused Germanwings’ co-pilot Andreas Lubitz to lock the door and push a button, sending the plane on a deliberate course toward destruction. There is now evidence of a diagnosed illness that led a doctor to declare him unfit to fly (a casual interpreter imagines this to be a serious mental illness).

The investigators are not currently treating this tragedy as “terrorism,” but nor can they call it simply “suicide,” since, as prosecutor Brice Robin noted, “suicide” does not capture what happened here–that is, the taking of 149 lives, along with one’s own.

artwork by Dan Addington

artwork by Dan Addington

The term “terrorism” is regulated in its use in the media; limited to acts of violence that are politically motivated. Terror is linked to an ideological motive, whether political or religious (or usually both). There is some “end” toward which the terrorist is moving. Some geo-political or radically apocalyptic goal by which the terrorist deems his or her violent acts justified or even necessary. When the tag “terrorist” is applied, it seems to set all sorts of things in motion; politically, militarily, and in terms of “national security.” It certainly starts up the media frenzy machine and so often creates social unrest, sometimes leading to violent outbursts of vengeance against people who look like “them” (and not “us”).

But I wonder if there is also a different way of thinking about “terror,” in cases of severe mental illness?

David Foster Wallace, a contemporary American novelist, who took his own life in 2008, after more than two decades of struggling with severe depression, reflected on mental illness–along with many other themes of alienation–as a theme in his novels. Here is a section from Infinite Jest:

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flame yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don‘t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

Perhaps we can think of severe mental illness, such as debilitating, life-destroying depression as a kind of “terrorist” in its own right. This of course does not mean that people suffering from mental illness are terrorists. Please don’t misunderstand me, here! To equate the “terror,” or “terrorism” of mental illness with the affected person would be to perpetuate the falsehoods and scapegoating of the victims of these illnesses.  And certainly most people who do suffer severe depression never act violently against other human beings. If it is the case (and we are admittedly only speculating at this point) that co-pilot Lubitz suffered from a mental illness, it would be inconceivable and inexcusable to bring the weight of the effects of his own anguish, his own internal “terror,” down upon the lives of so many others.

In any case, whatever the results of the outcome of the investigation, we have seen time and again how mental anguish not only terrorizes the person dealing with it internally, but can have outwardly violent and tragic consequences. In our modern cultures, it seems, more work needs to be done dealing with the “terror” of the flame that effects so many of us within. Should the devastating effects of mental illness stir up in us a vigilant desire to understand its causes and to temper its effects? While most of us (relatively healthy) people deal regularly with a fear of death and of dying, there are many among us who struggle with a fear of life and of living.

So yes, perhaps we cannot say that the cause of the Germanwings tragedy was terrorism. Nor can we call it (just) suicide. But was it the result of an internal terror(ism); some horrifying fire called the fear of life? Perhaps time–and further investigation–will tell.


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About Kyle Roberts

(PhD) is Schilling Professor of Public Theology and Church and Economic Life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Roberts has published Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Cascade, 2013) and is currently co-authoring a theological commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans) and A Complicated Pregnancy: Was Jesus Really Born of a Virgin? (Fortress Press, Theology for the People)