The continuing revelations about the Germanwings incident and the condition of the co-pilot allegedly responsible have amassed the attention of people around the world.
The airline industry has been a constant in my life. My mother worked for the Argentinean airline, Aerolineas Argentinas before we moved to New Zealand in 1989. In Auckland she started with Air New Zealand and has been there since. My first marketing role out of university was at Singapore Airlines, where I worked for three and a half years. In a public relations capacity I saw first-hand the level of preparation and care that goes into planning for the worst possible outcomes – in part to salvage a brand, but predominantly to provide the highest level of information and support to the grieving families of victims affected by air disasters.
Many of my colleagues had experienced the devastation of Singapore Airlines’ regional carrier, SilkAir’s Flight 185* incident in 1997, which the inquest deemed to be a ‘murder-suicide’. They had also experienced the Singapore Airlines Flight 006^ accident in 2000, which killed 83 of 179 occupants on board. The latter was found to be the result of pilot error.
No matter the reason, the outcome bears the same pain – loss of valuable life, loss of assets and the incomprehensible grief of the victims’ loved ones. With that grief comes a human need for justice. WHO was responsible? HOW could this have been avoided? WHY weren’t better measures in place?
Reactions to the Germanwings incident has seen hasty opinions, conspiracies, accusations and an unforgivable lack of humanity. The abhorrent display by some Spanish people “hoping there were more Catalans on board” is one such example. (1)
More prominent is the reaction to German authorities dismissing terrorism as the cause of the act. (2) “So if the pilot was Muslim, it’s terrorism. But because he was a white European, it must be mental illness.”(3)
NO, it is never ideal to jump to conclusions based on ethnicity, religion, gender or age. But is it correct to label every mass murder disaster as terrorism?
An article on Quartz (4) by human rights, geopolitics and post-colonialism journalist, Jake Flanagin says, “Few clear, official, transnational definitions of international terrorism actually exist…which makes this new information about the Germanwings crash difficult to qualify.” (The “new information” referring to the revelation that the aircraft was crashed with intent). The common thread in the multiple existing definitions that do exist “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.”
Mental illness should not be overshadowed by the word ‘terrorism’. December’s Lindt cafe hostage situation in Sydney was subsequently defined as “a rare mix of extremism, mental health problems and plain criminality.” (5) What gave this incident the initial labelling of ‘terrorism’ so swiftly was not the name of the man responsible (which we only discovered later) – it was the paraphernalia that he used during the crime.
The definition of terrorism is complex: it can relate to violence and threats for ideological or political purposes, but the term ‘terrorist’ can also refer to ‘a person who terrorises or frightens others’, and ‘to produce widespread fear’. Professor James Ogloff, a psychologist and the director of Swinburne University of Technology’s Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science says that the Germanwings incident has a crucial difference to a lone suicide: “The difference is there’s a total disregard for the fact other people are going to be affected, or there is a degree of resentment that’s driving it. It’s usually very unlikely that a suicidal person wants to take out others, especially strangers. In these sorts of cases, people are either particularly resentful and angry against society broadly, or against a particular organisation.” (6)
Flying a plane into a mountain is a terrifying act, no doubt about it. Did it happen because of a severe mental instability, or did it happen to prove a point? We don’t know yet.
In his article, Jake Flanagin comments that we, humans, have a need to find reason amidst chaos. That we search for an explanation, even when a situation is so extreme, that we cannot imagine what the narrative could be – “mass murder without an immediately apparent point is all the more confounding.”
Labelling events that we are still in the process of investigating and understanding is only human. We do it from an innate compulsion to band together with our friends, so we’re stronger against the antagonists. We do it because we are communicators and it’s our nature to narrate. But should we not refrain from assigning motive and responsibility until we have the evidence? The media – the ones who tell the stories and control the narrative – should lead the way. And it should be ok to say, “We just don’t know yet.”
* Wikipedia: SilkAir Flight 185
^ Wikipedia: Singapore Airlines Flight 006
(1) National Post: Spain to investigate online insults of Catalan victims who died aboard crashed Germanwings flight
(2) Quartz: Why authorities were so quick to dismiss terrorism as the cause of the Germanwings crash
(3) International Business Times: Germanwings crash pilot ‘should be called a terrorist’
(4) Quartz: The Germanwings crash wasn’t just suicide, it was mass murder (originally titled ‘Suicide or terrorism – what should we call the Germanwings crash?
(5) Sydney Morning Herald: Sydney siege report: Biggest question left unanswered in review
(6) Sydney Morning Herald: Germanwings plane crash: Murder-suicide usually involves psychopathy or psychosis: experts