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An Anthropological Fear

Suicide is not what it used to be. According to the Aviation Safety Network, since 1976 six commercial planes, including most recently an Airbus A320 flight operated by Germanwings (a low-cost company owned by highly reputable Lufthansa), are believed to have been intentionally crashed by pilots, resulting in the deaths of 605 people. We have entered the era of mass murder/suicide. With the intentional crash of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who took with him on March 24th all of the 149 Germanwings passengers, our in-flight risk sentiments have worsened; danger now may come from inside. Usually, danger came from outside the cabin: turbulence, technical failure, or terrorist attack (since 9/11). Our collective imagination associated the civil aviation pilot—like the lifesaving firefighter—with the hero figure. All of this has changed brutally. Hence, the anthropological fear: the cockpit has become a potential area for distrust. Is there a pilot onboard? Yes, and he is depressed!

Sadly enough, we were accustomed to suicide attacks (or suicide bombings) involving an individual with the intent to kill others or cause great destruction and willing to die in the process. We knew very well that in some cases this type of attack only aimed to get world news attention and help publicize the causes in the name of which terrorist organizations strike. The circumstances of the Germanwings crash suggest the opposite: co-pilot Lubitz, for whom Lufthansa doctors recommended psychological treatment, defended no cause. A total absence of any demand for recognition. A perfectly gratuitous mass murder/suicide, perhaps a new type of egoistic suicide.

In his 1897 pioneering work Suicide, Emile Durkheim studied the social causes of suicide. Identifying four types—egoistic, altruistic, anomic, and fatalistic—the French sociologist revolutionized conceptions by showing how, such a personal and intimate action as suicide there could hide social determinations: lack or excess of integration (egoistic or altruistic suicides), lack or excess of regulation (anomic or fatalistic suicides).

What Durkheim could not have accounted for in the statistics available at his time are today’s suicide attacks, let alone this new kind of suicide involving mass murder—both extreme and paradoxical ways for their perpetrators to enter history while at the same time exiting the world. In co-pilot Lubitz’s suicidal depression, the will to kill is nothing but a will to kill oneself out of despair. In the suicide attack on the contrary, the will to kill oneself is included in the will to kill for a political or religious cause, even if it is a lost one.

Egoistic or altruistic, the Durkheimian suicide equated two main terms: society and the individual. For better or for worse, there were no interfaces at the time, no audiences, no live performances, no immediate mediations (a beautiful oxymoron!), not even the glamorous idea so naturalized today that “the whole world is watching.” Andreas Lubitz could have declared to his ex-girlfriend a cryptic “I will do something that will change the system. The world will know my name.” He gave us a low-cost holocaust.

Ulrich Beck, the German sociologist of Risk Society (1986), also could not foresee such an extension of the areas of risk, beyond environmental or terrorist risks. Now that we are all potential frequent flyers, here comes the suicide pilot’s attack to our collective imagination. We have been handed an anthropological fear. Now that the devil may be inside the cockpit, our societal reflexivity will have to come to terms with this. The pilot is no longer the hero-savior, he may be the villain, or…just depressed.


Jorge de la Barre

JORGE DE LA BARRE is a sociologist at the Universidade Federal Fluminense (Brazil).


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2015

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