Germanwings And The Manufacture of “Why”

The intentional crash of Germanwings Flight 4U 9525 illustrates shortcomings of aviation security, but shortcomings that are both inherent and necessary in flight. The crash also exemplifies a few uncomfortable features of human nature we don’t want to admit to ourselves.

Despite Kafkaesque airport security, a major disaster happened. This event could not have been prevented by any security measures put in place. The most effective security measure, according to many security experts – the reinforced cockpit door – was ultimately what allowed the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, to seal the pilot out. I supported the idea of the reinforced door. It’s is still the most effective and least invasive thing an airline can do to prevent hijackings. Now we’ve got a real test of the cockpit door: the pilot couldn’t break through it with an ax.

Germanwings responded with yet another security feature. It is now mandatory that two pilots remain in the cockpit at all times. This is a transparently futile response, akin to removing shoes after a shoe-bomb attempt, or banning nail clippers after knives are used in a hijacking. Most major aviation security measures have been stopgaps. They are created to address a specific security flaw, but fail to truly secure the flight. The reinforced door, by itself, was one of the more sensible strategies.

Let’s reiterate. A reinforced door is still more useful than reactionary responses to violence such as, say, banning all liquids. And this is why Germanwings 9525 is a good example of the fact that we’ve got to learn to accept risk. There was not, and still is not, any realistic way to prevent what Andreas did. If the driver of a vehicle decides to drive it into a cliff, passengers have little control. This may change at some point in the future – we may be forced into driverless vehicles that nobody can steer into an intentional disaster – but the current reality is that as a passenger you have to accept the remote risk that your driver, pilot or conductor is going to do something bad.

Accepting risk is a part of accepting life. And at some point, a point that is usually much earlier than we realize, attempts to reduce risk become counter-productive. It was the door, after all, that prevented the pilot or passengers from regaining control of the airplane. And the door wasn’t even one of the bad plans, the “security theater.” Instead of reducing risk we end up hurting ourselves. Often in more ways than one.

The media has scrambled to explain “why” this event happened. In the absence of political and religious motives, which in many cases are neither truly political nor religious, a big hole is left. The public narrative needs some defining element to put the co-pilot who crashed the plane in a distinct category from “normal” people such as you and I. It’s the othering of the individual. Mental illness seems to be the direction of the narrative at the moment.

Major depression is found within approximately seven percent of the American population, for a general idea, or some 15 million persons. Most of these people don’t behave violently. Depression does not explain what happened here. Worse, media focus implying that depression is a causal factor misleads people as to what depression is.

When we’re left without a major “why,” a simple a-ha reason that supposedly explains everything, we’re confronted with this fact: the co-pilot was a person just like you or I. He thought the same thoughts, felt the same emotions, that we think and feel. There may not have been a grand ‘gotcha’ for his behavior; it may not have even been a premeditated act. Andreas could have decided in that very moment to lock the door and crash the plane. It may have been nothing more than a purely impulsive decision. Most people have made these. The only difference is that, in this case, it was the co-pilot.

You may be thinking, “Not me. I never think that way.” You’d be alone, or lying. Most people have found themselves considering destructive, impulsive behaviors. In fact, intrusive thoughts are normal. Including extremely violent ones. They happen to everyone:

Perhaps you’ve suddenly had the image of pushing someone off a train platform, kicking a dog, yelling in church, jumping out of a moving car, or stabbing someone you love. While doing or wanting to do any of these things is not normal, having intrusive thoughts like these is normal.

And sometimes people – completely normal and healthy people – give in. It creates an a situation beyond explanation. We can’t fill our collective need for a big “why” based on that.

The ex-girlfriend of Andreas reported the late co-pilot once said “everyone will then know my name” and that he planned to do something that would “change the system.” In the context of the flight, it sure seems ominous. In reality, anyone could say that at any given moment and it would not seem violent nor suspicious. It’s a vague statement. We’re inclined to interpret it in a sister way only because of the crash. We don’t know if Andreas thought that his action would change the system, nor if he was even thinking of those statements when he went down.

Nonetheless, an explanation is demanded. That’ll do. Even if we don’t have a real explanation, we can go ahead and manufacture one.

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