Reports from multiple sources now claim that Andreas Lubitz, a 28-year-old German co-pilot, deliberately crashed Germanwings flight 9525 in the French Alps on Mar. 24, killing himself, 144 passengers, and five crew members. According to French prosecutor Brice Robin, it appears that Lubitz “wanted to destroy the aircraft,” although a motive has yet to be identified.
After Lubitz reportedly locked himself in the cockpit alone, he “manipulated the buttons of the flight monitoring system to activate the descent of the aircraft,” Robin announced at a Mar. 26 press conference. This apparently requires a conscious effort, which has led many to conclude that the pilot’s intention was suicide. “French Alps plane crash treated as suicide and mass murder by co-pilot,” according to EuroNews, on Mar. 26. “Apparently he had burnout, he was in depression,” reported the Daily Mail.
But not everyone agrees with telling the story as a suicide. “When you are responsible for 150 people, I don’t call it a suicide,” Robin told reporters. “If a person kills himself and also 149 other people, another word should be used—not suicide,” added Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr in a statement on Mar. 26. Lufthansa owns Germanwings.
So what is it? Phrases like “deliberately crashed,” and “wanted to destroy,” might evoke terrorism, but German officials have quickly denied that Lubitz had any sort of link to terrorist activity. Germany’s interior minister Thomas de Maizière said on Mar. 26, “current information suggested that the co-pilot of a Germanwings jet that went down in the French Alps, killing 150 people, had no links to terrorism,” Reuters reports.
Few clear, official, transnational definitions of international terrorism actually exist, though, which makes this new information about the Germanwings crash difficult to qualify. The UN has been criticized for failing to offer a common definition of terrorism for member states—though a 2004 Security Council resolution vaguely identified terror as as an act intended to scare:
“Criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act, and all other acts which constitute offences within the scope of and as defined in the international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism.”
The FBI offers a more solid concept, defining overseas terrorism as an act:
“… intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”
The European Commission’s definition, formulated in response to the US World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, dictates that a terrorist act must include:
“An objective element, as it refers to a list of instances of serious criminal conduct (murder, bodily injuries, hostage taking, extortion, fabrication of weapons, committing attacks, threatening to commit any of the above, etc.).”
But the EU Commission also requires that terrorist acts be motivated by something more:
“A subjective element, as these acts are deemed to be terrorist offenses when committed with the aim of seriously intimidating a population, unduly compelling a government or international organization to perform or abstain from performing any act, or seriously destabilizing or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organization.”
A common thread in these definitions is that terrorism isn’t random; it makes a point. Whether that point is Islamist, anti-Muslim, Christian fundamentalist, anti-government, it is one that compels, coerces, influences policy or conduct. In other words, the nature of the act’s point is extraneous, but there has to be a point.
Although Germany has ruled out links between Lubitz and any known terror groups, the truth is that we don’t know whether Lubitz had a point to make. We may never know what his intent was, if any.
To some, the difference may seem irrelevant. If claims that Lubitz deliberately crashed are true, then we can still say that Germanwings flight 9525 was hijacked. We can say its passengers and crew were murdered. The decision to crash a plane carrying 150 people is categorically mass murder, after all—even if the person making that decision is mentally ill. But how we choose to talk about the event, the language we employ, may matter to the families of victims.
When James Holmes shot and killed 12 people and injured 70 in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, his previous suicide attempts were used by the defense to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Which, to the families and loved ones of those murdered, surely downplayed their deaths, relegating them to the status of unfortunate collateral casualties in the saga of Holmes’s battle with mental illness.
“He is not a monster,” his parents pleaded. “He is a human being gripped by a severe mental illness.”
On the other hand, victims of terror—specifically Islamist terror—are generally valorized. Their legacies, often rightfully so, are cemented in a narrative of tragic heroism. They are principal characters in their own, final story; neatly packaged into a greater, modern mythology of good vs. evil.
The crash of Germanwings flight 9525 is a lot messier. It is understandably difficult to wholesale-villainize a sufferer of mental illness. But in trying too quickly to determine whether a mass murder qualifies as terrorism, or in delving too deeply into Lubitz’s state of mind, we risk shifting the story away from those who died at his hand.
It’s hard. Humans have a natural compulsion to dig through chaos in search of reason. And perhaps that’s why we grasp for narratives of suicide or terror—mass murder without an immediately apparent point is all the more confounding, and all the more terrifying.