In the wake of the Germanwings airline tragedy on March 24, multiple op-eds have surfaced calling for compassion towards the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, who steered the plane into the French Alps, killing the 150 people aboard.
After acknowledging that Lubitz had been treated for severe depression and one or more other conditions, the Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Mary Giliberti wrote “how relevant those factors actually are remains to be seen” in a piece for The Huffington Post. I fail to see how the pilot’s history of severe depression could be anything but relevant to the fact that he crashed his plane, but I lack Giliberti’s qualifications. Robert Sapolsky, a published neuroendocrinologist teaching at Stanford, stated in the LA Times that “it is immensely rare for depression to result in violence to others,” a claim he can undoubtedly substantiate due to his excellent work in his field. Harder to prove, however, is the assertion he later makes that “it was not Lubitz who did this; it was his disease. Or to state this as explicitly as possible, the Germanwings crash had 150, not 149, victims.”
Giliberti and Sapolsky point out in their widely-circulated pieces, respectively, that almost 7% percent of the American population suffers one major depressive episode a year and that depression affects 1 in 6 humans during their lives. These statistics support Sapolsky’s characterization of depression as “the common cold of psychopathology.” I fully believe that depression is far more common than the average person thinks, and I join mental health professionals like Sapolsky and Giliberti in their hope that this incident will lead to more options, treatments, and love for people battling mental illness. However, I also see a troubling and familiar pattern in these comments, and others like them.
Mental illness is relatively prevalent, and like any treatable illness we ought to regard it without stigma. But why are so many going out of their way to cast Lubitz as a victim? He was depressed, but he was not insane. He had reason (as exhibited by his plan to lock out the other pilot from the cockpit) and, as far as we know, no sociopathic tendencies that would indicate a lack of conscience. Why are we treating a history of depression as a more acceptable excuse for mass-killing than a history of radicalization in an Islamic sect? When a man, probably marginalized in society, turns to a radical Muslim group for support and belonging, he makes a conscious choice. His choice leads (in a very few isolated cases) to cause massive damage and death on an airplane. We condemn these men as terrorists. When a man, feeling isolated in society, turns from medical treatment to suicide as an answer to his depression, he makes a conscious choice. His choice leads (in a very few isolated cases) to massive damage and death on an airplane. And we sympathetically call this man a victim.
This is not a game of who can be more tragic. Both examples should inspire compassion for the two men who were driven to act in such a desperate way. Yet as we grieve and compose strategies for more effectively and safely addressing mental illness, we must restrain society’s insidious tendency to use one set of vocabulary for certain types of people and a different set for others. A tragedy is still a tragedy, but murder is also still murder.