Murder-suicide or mass murder?
In his iconic work, The Poverty of Historicism (1957), the British-Austrian philosopher, Karl Popper, addressed himself to that very question (at the time, he had Bolshevik revolutionaries in mind) by positing the notion that when a human being is denied the right to choose how he lived, he’s left with the freedom of choosing how to die. That comes close to explaining it.
But Andreas Lubitz, the 27-year-old co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 who locked his pilot out of the cockpit and then crashed his plane into the Alps, killing 149 people on board, was not interested in promoting a political cause or making an existential statement. What he did could not even be described as murder-suicide.
It was mass murder. When you put a gun to your head and pull the trigger, that’s suicide. When, however, you deliberately, calculatedly and, as the legal term has it, “with malice aforethought” plunge your plane into the mountains, killing not just yourself but 149 other souls along with you, that's murder — mass murder, to be exact. Lubitz was not, of course, setting a precedent. According to the Aviation Safety Board (ASB), since 1976 six commercial planes, including Germanwings, are believed to have been intentionally crashed by pilots or co-pilots, resulting in the deaths of 605 people. This figure does not include the 239 fatalities of last year’s Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, as the accident is still under investigation.
In 2013, for example, in an eerily similar tragedy to Germanwings, a plane crash in Mozambique that killed 33 people on board was deemed intentional, except in this case it was the co-pilot who was locked out of the cockpit, and the pilot who crashed the plane, apparently because in the weeks preceding the tragedy, he had been “depressed” and having "marital problems." Similarly, in 1977, SilkAir Flight 185, a scheduled flight from Jakarta to Singapore, crashed into the Musi River in southern Sumatra with 97 passengers on board. An investigation later determined that the cause was “flight control inputs,” most likely by the captain — read, murder suicide or mass murder, whichever way you see it. And, closer to home, in October 1999, EgyptAir Flight 990, a Boeing 767, was on a regularly scheduled flight from Los Angeles to Cairo, with a layover in New York. After takeoff, the plane crashed in the Atlantic Ocean, 60 miles from Nantucket, Massachusetts, killing all passengers and crew. After two weeks of probing, the ASB handed the case to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as the evidence suggested a “criminal act” had taken place.
The FBI then determined that there was evidence to suggest that the crash was intentional and that the co-pilot, Jameel Batouti, had committed a murder-suicide. Of the 217 passengers who perished, 75 were Egyptians (of whom 27 were Army officers) and 101 were Americans. The others were citizens of Canada, Syria, Sudan, Germany and Zimbabwe. The report did not issue an official statement about Batouti’s motive. At the time, Egyptians and other Arabs with a penchant for conspiracy theories, refused to believe that EgyptAir Flight 990 was deliberately sabotaged by its co-pilot. They attributed the incident to Mossad, the CIA, even to “laser rays” directed at the plane by unidentified forces on the ground that wanted to discredit Egypt and ruin its tourist industry.
Sometimes, sadly, passengers will watch their plane crash (Oh, the sheer terror of those few seconds before impact!) not as the result of the machinations of a crew member in the cockpit, but those of a fellow-passenger — a passenger with a twisted vision about how to commit suicide.
In May, 1964, before security screening was introduced at airports, a man called Francisco Gonzalez, a former member of the Philippine sailing team of the 1960 Summer Olympics, but at the time a store man at a warehouse in San Francisco, boarded Pacific Airlines Flight 773 in San Ramon, California — intent on the glory of committing mayhem in the form of going down in a plane. He entered the cockpit (those were innocent days), took his gun out and shot dead both the pilot and the co-pilot, before turning the gun on himself, causing the plane to crash and killing all 44 passengers on board.
In 2010, a middle-age man named Joseph Stark flew a single-engine plane into the federal building in Austin, Texas that housed the Internal Revenue Service. Earlier, he had posted a message online that read: “Well, Big Brother IRS, take my pound of flesh and sleep well.”
At least Stark edified us on what his gripe was. But, in my book, the most bizarre incident of this kind, an act of, well, let’s call it revenge-suicide, was committed by Eric Johnson, who was in the midst of a bitter divorce and a custody brawl with his wife Beth, who was, he was convinced, egged on by his mother-in-law. So on the morning of March 5 that year, he boarded a single-engine plane along with his 8-year-old daughter and, after he took to the skies, deliberately crashed it into his mother-in-law’s house, killing himself and his kid. (The mother-in-law-was not at home at the time.)
Well, there you have it. There are as many reasons behind these acts as there are disturbed — OK, “depressed” — people hell-bent on murder-suicide, prepared to take as many people with them as they could. One wishes, though, that when these suicidal folks think about killing a lot of people and then themselves, perhaps they should consider starting with themselves. And then we’ll take it from there.
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