Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother and killed him.
People have barely recovered from last year’s air disasters. Now the headlines are splashed once again with yet another plane crash. Unlike the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which is doomed to remain a mystery, authorities more or less know what happened to Germanwings Flight 4U9525. While it is a relief to know the cause of the crash, it is no less troubling or sinister than that which happened to MH370, which indicated a deliberate choice by the pilot to steer the passengers to their deaths.
The facts show that the co-pilot (or first officer, as you will), 27-year old Andreas Lubitz, crashed the plane into the French Alps. This had apparently been planned:
- He kept encouraging the captain, Patrick Sondheimer, to leave the cockpit for a lavatory break.
- The captain had been barely gone three minutes when Lubitz had already locked the door.
- He reprogrammed the autopilot to let the plane descend from 38,000 feet to 100 feet.
- When the captain tried to reenter the cockpit, he disabled the code needed to unlock the door.
- Sondheimer asked to be let in through the intercom, and as he realized what was happening, tried to break down the door. Lubitz did not respond.
- Lubitz also failed to answer air traffic control. He did not send out a distress signal.
- He ignored the automated alarms to “pull up” once the critical altitude was reached.
- He seemed to be awake and conscious throughout the last ten minutes of the flight, as his normal breathing could be heard over the recording.
The evidence rules out that the co-pilot had somehow lost consciousness and thus, control of the plane. Now the world is asking in grief and outrage: why?
It’s horrific enough that 911 happened – a threat to internal and international security, a clash of ideologies, an outright act of terrorism that had scarred an entire generation. But on that tragic day, the reason was clear, and the terrorists owned responsibility.
Small wonder that some people are asking about the co-pilot’s religious affiliation. It is easier to attribute his motives to that of a terrorist’s. Instead we find a young German citizen, born and raised in Montabaur, known to be polite and quiet, a boy who had always dreamed of becoming a pilot and had achieved his goal.
Reports say that Lubitz had mental health issues, the specifics of which are emerging piecemeal.
- He needed to take a break from pilot training due to some burnout issues in 2009.
- He was recently on antidepressants (found by police in his home).
- His girlfriend mentioned he had two different personas in his personal life and at work, and that he was fearful of losing his job.
- Doctors issued several sick notes, none of which he had given to his employer, Lufthansa.
It is understandable in the wake of the tragedy to go for the why’s and what if’s. There is now an outcry against putting depressed people in positions of responsibility. There is an angry response from those in the mental health sector, and people themselves who are suffering from depression. Some blame his loved ones – his partner, his parents – for not detecting Lubitz’s state of mind. Others are blaming those who did – his doctors – for not alerting his employer.
At the end of the day, when all emotions are put aside, 150 people are dead. Their remains are scattered on the French Alps. Among them are teens and babies; parents and grandparents; husbands and wives who will never hold their spouses or see their kids again. We owe it to them and to their grieving families to make sure that such a tragedy, though rare, should never happen again.
Aviation authorities will enforce new regulations. Companies might require full disclosure of ailments that may render a person incapable of working. The health sector will educate people on depression and other mental disorders. The airline industry will enhance its technology. Pilot training programs will implement the early detection of mental or physical incapacity.
Yet despite these measures, despite all that we do to ensure that accidents do not happen and that our systems are 99.99% safe and foolproof, we cannot predict one thing: the people who are operating these things.
Every day, we rely on other people for our own well-being. We expect them to provide for our safety. We expect our food to be cooked properly, our trains carefully driven, our nations thoughtfully led.
At the same time, we demand more from those who are in a position of higher responsibility. We expect them to be stronger, smarter and more capable than us. We don’t want to see any signs of weakness that plague mere mortals. We expect them to be supermen.
These are the very same people who are under more pressure. These are the people for whom safety checks must be in place. And these are the very people who deny that they might have a problem that renders them incapable.
This does not excuse Lubitz’s actions, which culminated in the murder of 149 people. He was responsible for the passengers who trustingly boarded his plane. But before all this, he should have been responsible for himself.
He ignored the sick notes from his doctors. He hid his anxieties and his insecurities from his friends, family and co-workers. He apparently performed so well in his training that Lufthansa allowed him to pilot the Germanwings plane, even though he had just 600 hours of experience under his belt.
Yet somewhere along the way, he broke down and failed to admit it.
The only people who were aware of his weaknesses was a stewardess he had dated and his current girlfriend, a maths teacher who is purportedly pregnant with their child. Reports say that the girlfriend had left him. If true, the loss of the one person he had leaned upon plus the fear of losing his job and lifelong dream, may have pushed him over the edge.
This is where his behavior deviates from that of a depressed person. Those who are depressed turn inward and self-destruct, with some ultimately committing suicide.
His actions more closely resemble those who go on a rampage in their school or workplace. Here, there is an element of rage and frustration, taken out on innocent people. Such killers blame others – their employers, colleagues, classmates or society in general – for the misery they feel, without considering what part they might have played in it.
This brought to mind the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s motive for murdering his brother is not clear; we just know he is angry and distraught for some reason. But instead of searching inside himself, discovering what was wrong and trying to work things out, he blamed his brother Abel and took his anger out upon him. That Cain had selfish reasons for doing so, and had no remorse in the act, was shown by his well-known response: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Ultimately, those of us who are in a position of responsibility know that we are indeed our brother’s keeper. We know that taking care of others means taking care of ourselves. It means having to admit when we are not capable of doing so. It might mean taking a break that we feel we don’t need, or entering another line of work that we like much less.
It also means that we must support those who are in these positions. We should not take for granted the thousands of other pilots who bring their passengers safely home. We have to ensure that they are in the best of health. We should not discriminate against those who might be taking medications and are still able to work. And we should not deride those who admit their weaknesses because that might be the only way that we could find out. The individual himself is the only reliable indicator of any human incapacity that might result in accident or tragedy.
And what of those like Lubitz, who managed to conceal his disorder from everyone and denied it even to himself? There is no easy answer. The issue with Lubitz is not that he had depression or suicidal thoughts. The problem probably goes deeper and has to do with his basic psychological makeup.
There might later be stricter psychological assessments of all pilots, and more sensitive tests to detect character flaws that would pose a risk. This opens up a whole Pandora’s box on the entire Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. We might end up discriminating people who are just a few shades away from the “norm”, while those who are truly “disturbed” get to slip through the cracks. Bottom line is, the soul of a man contains the deepest mysteries, and tragically, those who are innocent have to pay the price.