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Why authorities were so quick to dismiss terrorism as the cause of the Germanwings crash

Reuters/Ina Fassbender
Not terrorism.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Amidst uncertainty that the crash of the Germanwings flight on Mar. 24 was not an accident, but a deliberate act by the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, who flew the Airbus into the ground, killing 150 people, at least one thing seems clear: this was not a terrorist act. Stating this was the German minister of interior, who found “no indications of any kind of terrorist background” to the crash. French interior minister had said on Mar. 25 that terrorism was not a likely hypothesis, but that no scenario could be excluded: but when it became clear that the co-pilot crashed the plane, and that the co-pilot had no “terrorist background,” the terror motive was ruled out.

It might be surprising to some that the terrorist motive was excluded so quickly, when after these kinds of tragedies the official approach is always not to exclude any possibility. But then again, this tragedy appeared to lack what, since 9/11, has emerged to be considered the conditio sine qua non of terroristic attacks: the pilot was not Muslim.

Andreas Lubitz was not Muslim, how could he possibly be a terrorist?

“I can’t imagine what would happen if he shared my name,” commented on Facebook on Quartz’s story on the accident Mohamad Najem, Lebanese, wearing a keffieh—a traditional Arab headdress—in his profile picture. Indeed, can you imagine?

If a Muslim—or an Arab—were flying the plane, this would be a terroristic attack, until there were proof to the contrary (and even then, Muslims would probably be held responsible). Authorities would call it a “suspected” attack, but certainly the narrative in the less scrupulous media would be terrorism, jihad, fight against the West. The ancestors of the pilot would be identified, the members of his family or friends with extreme ideologies would be scrutinized in search of a confirmation of fundamentalist influences and motives.

When the Malaysia Airline flight MH370 went missing in March 2014, the possibility of a terrorism attack was immediately contemplated, although considered unlikely because Malaysia ”has only a tiny number of Muslim fundamentalists.”  When, in 2011, 92 people were killed in an attack in Norway, the first hypotheses—then dispelled upon arresting the author, Anders Behring Breivik, a Christian fundamentalist—were of a jihadi attack. It’s almost automatic: despite the fact that Muslims are responsible for only 6% attacks on American soil from 1980 to 2005, and less than 2% in Europe over the last five years, the word “attack” seems to immediately connote something perpetrated by a Muslim fundamentalist.

The precipitous judgment of terrorist acts is problematic even when the perpetrator is Muslim. As Glenn Greenwald noted after the Boston marathon bombing, the immediacy with which attacks conducted by Muslims are linked to fundamentalism can be misleading, as it fails to show the difference between religious and political motives.

Alas, we are not asking all Germans (or all pilots) to stand up and condemn the act of this one individual pilot. Of course they condemn it—how come we don’t need them to say it? There is a word for it: it’s prejudice.

Prejudice comes from the latin prae-, in advance, and judicium, judgment. It means to judge a person or a situation before knowing, before checking, before verifying. A judgement that should be a conclusion becomes the starting point, and since a prejudice is just as strong as a judgment it’s hard to shed it, once applied. A case like Andreas Lubitz’s, by showing how things proceed in the absence of such prejudice, highlights how unfair it is, for those who are not white, not Western, and hence aren’t afforded the benefit of the doubt.

This is not to say that the Germanwings crash should be labelled as terrorism. The definition of terrorism implies an ideological or political motive—if it’s not found, then the cause is different, and hence the labeling should be. But it’s undeniable that the speed at which we ruled out a terrorist act highlights the strong Islamophobic bias that affects the Western world.

Quartz’s full coverage of the Germanwings crash can be found here.

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