Friday, March 27, 2015

Mass Murder and the Critical Mom

A few days before Andreas Lubitz deliberately reprogrammed Germanwings Flight 9525 in order to lower the plane's altitude from 38,000 feet to 100 feet, ignoring the pleas of Captain Patrick Sonderheimer, a group from my children's school took the same flight--possibly with the same pilots.  German children often go on exchange programs, and my older son has been on several trips to China with international groups of students.   The children on the Germanwings flight lived in a small village slightly north of Düsseldorf, a city to which I frequently go, half an hour from our local Hauptbahnhof.  The sister of a colleague was booked on the fatal flight, but changed her plans at the last minute. A friend who works for Lufthansa loaded the plane with meals, glasses, cutlery.
When we first heard the terrible news, when speculations about the age of the aircraft and the dangers of birds or foreign objects being sucked into the plane dominated the news, I felt that this crash couldn't have been caused by mechanical failure, since most crashes happen during take-off and landing, even those that have occurred with pilots impaired by alcohol or severe psychological problems.  It is still very hard to imagine someone studying the Airbus system carefully enough to set the plane's course in such a way that the system could not override the pilot's intentions.   It is hard to imagine a man wanting to die by sending a plane into slow descent so that it crashes into an alp, killing babies, schoolchildren, opera singers, vacationers.  Even if we try to get into the mind of Andreas Lubitz--another colleague suggests that he wants people to be thinking and talking about him right now--it is difficult to imagine any result other than the kind of feelings experienced by the actor Ralph Fiennes when he prepared for the role of the sadistic nazi, Amon Goeth.  In a February, 1994 New York Times interview in which he reflected that "Evil may well be nearer the surface than we like to admit," Fiennes confessed, 
"It's not a rational thing, but it's an instinctive thing," he explained. "If you are playing a role, you are immersing yourself in thinking about that character -- how he moves, how he thinks. In the end he becomes an extension of your own self. You like him."

When the Times reporter asked Fiennes whether there was "an emotional residue from the experience of playing a character he nonetheless views as obscene and sick," Fiennes answered, "I think there was a price to pay for this one. When you're investigating behavior that is that negative so intensely for three months, then you feel sort of peculiar because you might have at moments enjoyed it and at the same time you feel slightly soiled by it. It just throws up all kinds of question marks -- about acting, about human behavior, about how all of that is probably a lot closer to the surface than we like to think."  For the chilling scene in which Goeth shoots at random, and for kicks, at concentration camp inmates, Fiennes combined memories of "that boyish thrill with an air rifle when you aim at cans on a wall . . . satisfaction when you hit a target--it gives you a kick" with "a desperate and psychotic personality with an unnatural void at the core."  This "desperate and psychotic void" reminds me of St. Augustine's definition of evil as "the absence of good."  In a way, it is what an actor must do--destroy the good parts of him or herself in order to let in--temporarily--the mind of, say, Hannibal Lecter.  The necessary process of actors--or writers--erasing their own personalities in order to inhabit the role of characters they play or create must be accompanied by some form of identification, and identification with another person is normally sympathetic.  The cost of even beginning to understand a mind like that of Andreas Lubitz is this kind of imaginative sympathy:  What if it thrilled me to known that I was going to die in a few minutes, and what if the screams of my passengers were music to my ears?  What if the sound of Andreas Lubitz's breathing was heavy breathing, evidence that he was sexually excited by the knowledge that he would die and kill many innocent people?  What if--alternatively--he had forgotten all about the passengers, lost as he was in the feeling of relief that his life would end?  What if nothing meant anything to him--either his own life or that of the passengers and the captain?  What if he felt things were so awful that he just could not even wait until he got home to kill himself?  If we could imagine feeling any of this, would we be closer to understanding or preventing tragedies like that of Flight 9525?  Or can we only thank our lucky stars that people like Andreas Lubitz are relatively few in this world? 


  1. I came here by way of your comment on the NYT. Thanks for a well thought out post. I shuddered when you mentioned children from your school had flown on the same flight only days earlier, and that the sister of a colleague had barely missed being on the fatal flight. We try to protect ourselves from evil, but often it's all so random, isn't it? Well done.

  2. Thanks for reading this. It did ease my mind and heart somewhat to write about this. It's so sad, and dangerousness seems so unpredictable.

  3. I, too, came here by way of your comment on the NYT article. You have a very interesting and artistically creative blog.