Stable-door logic

A front page of the Daily Mail from 27th March 2015, with the headline "Suicide pilot had a long history of depression: Why on earth was he allowed to fly?"Last week a GermanWings airliner was crashed into a moutainside in south-western France, killing everyone on board. The evidence seems to suggest that the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, crashed it deliberately, and investigations have turned up evidence of fairly minor mental illness and deteriorating eyesight that could have been the motive for his apparent decision. The day after the flight data and voice recorders were investigated and prosecutors announced what they believed happened, newspapers demanded to know why he was allowed to fly, as if this sort of thing could have been predicted from the evidence that was available.

Lubitz was able to shut the pilot out of the cockpit after he left to use the toilet because security systems installed after 9/11 allowed him to override his pilot’s own code. It seems that security measures implemented to prevent one kind of previously unforeseen disaster have enabled another, clearly because nobody thought that a pilot would crash his or her plane deliberately, and the most likely person to want to get into the cockpit against the pilot’s wishes was a hijacker. A system which allows control over a plane to be seized from the ground has not been implemented because of fears over safety and security, and a rule that a cabin crew member must be in the cockpit when one of the two pilots is away, so that there are always two people in the cockpit, was already in use at some airlines but not Lufthansa/GermanWings, although they have decided to adopt it now.

Every time a tragedy occurs, we assume that we could have done something to prevent it; the idea that a deranged or evil person was just too clever for us is regarded as a defeatist attitude. Readers have no doubt heard the expression “shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted”, but this is the stock response to an unforeseen tragedy or atrocity. The drive is particularly strong after an air disaster because rich and powerful people travel by air, because it’s the only quick way of getting to many places and because, although genuine accidents are rare, an attack on an aircraft can kill everyone on board quickly; a passenger is much less likely to survive than in a car, bus or train crash. The same phenomenon is seen after other terrible occurrences, such as where children are murdered. After Ian Huntley murdered two young girls at the school where he was a caretaker, for example, it was revealed that a number of accusations had been made against him, but as none were proven, he could not have been prevented from working with children. A whole new safeguarding body was set up in response to this.

While I was not particularly interested in working with children myself, I feared at the time that if someone committed a murder and it turned out that he had no previous convictions but did have a problematic school history, this also could be used to bar people like me from not only working with them but also having access to them. I mentioned this to a work colleague and he replied, “yes, but what’s worse, you not being able to get a job or a child being killed?”. When a murder is reported on, all such details reporters can find about the criminal’s past are reported, including professional or amateur diagnoses of things like Asperger’s syndrome and their obsessive behaviour (like always demanding paprika and broccoli on his pizza in Lubitz’s case), regardless of what relevance, if any, these things had to the crime. These things are weird, weirdos kill children, therefore they are relevant.

Attitudes to mental health are coloured by a lot of prejudice and irrationality. Because mental illness is heavily associated with irrationality, people often suspend their own reason when making judgements. I once heard, for example, of a woman who was raped in a public place and reported the attack to the police. When it came to prosecuting, however, the Crown Prosecution Service found evidence of past mental illness, some of whose sufferers had been known to consent to rough sex in unusual places, and as this information would likely be used by the Defence, they decided not to prosecute, and the rapist went on to rape someone else. Now that it appears that one airline pilot with depression and burnout may have crashed a plane on purpose, people insist that any pilot with a history of “mental illness” should be barred from flying even though most are no danger to anyone or indeed themselves — last week’s disaster is the first of its kind that, if the official story is correct, had no political motive.

Of course, it’s necessary that airline pilots be mentally and physically robust as their judgement could mean the difference between life and death for hundreds of passengers (and between the black and the red for their airline, although this isn’t often spoken of this soon after a disaster). Michael Moore wrote an essay some years ago about the low salaries paid to pilots on American commuter airlines, and remarked that he wanted “the people taking me with them to defy nature’s most powerful force — gravity — to be happy, content, confident, and well paid” so that they’re not thinking of where their next meal is coming from when they have dozens of lives in their hands; however, in the Observer today, pilot and aviation writer Simon Moores notes that the life of a junior pilot, particularly in the low-cost sector, is often a poorly-paid, insecure and stressful one. It could be that if we barred everyone with a “black mark” on their mental health history from being pilots, we would end up without enough pilots. His mental health may turn out to have had nothing to do with this crash at all; air crashes have taken place because the pilots were convinced they were somewhere other than where they were (such theories abound about some of the so-called Bermuda Triangle crashes, for example) so we should not rush to add more stigma to mental illness than already exists when pilot stress and resulting poor judgement may be a greater threat to airline safety.

(As an afterthought, many Muslims have been complaining that the idea that this was a terrorist attack was not even considered when it became obvious that the pilot was white. Some humorous articles have shown up on some websites, like the one in which investigators found a copy of the Qur’an in a bookshop near Lubitz’s home. The complaint basically runs that if the pilot’s name had been Mohammed, the first thing considered would have been that he intended this as an act of jihad, regardless of whether he also had a history of mental illness and had no known connection to jihadi activity whatsoever. The problem is that Muslim political movements do exist which have been known to hijack planes and crash them, causing large-scale loss of life, while right now in Germany there aren’t, and the last terroristic movements to appear in Germany did not use that particular method. It’s a more justified complaint when white Christian fanatics carrying explosives attack security checkpoints with machetes at New Orleans airport, or when neo-Nazis stockpile weapons in northern England and the incident is not prominently reported and mental illness is readily given as an excuse. Germans are even less notorious, in recent years at least, for lethal terrorist violence than right-wing white Americans, so it’s reasonable to assume that Lubitz’s action was either a mistake or had personal motives, and to at least consider the possibility of a political motive if his name had been Mohammed.)

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  • S

    Thanks for this. I have to say some of the reporting around this devastating incident has been frustrating in how the stigma aroung mental health conditions has been so blatant. On CNN they were reporting how anti deppressants were found in Lubitz’s home, as if this was some how incriminating in itself.

    What I have seen anecdotally is how, people struggling mental ill health are more likely to suffer more when the person feels isolated and like they have no support. Interesting that Lubitz felt unable to share his struggles with anyone, namely his employers. I would be interested in looking looking at the airline’s policy on supporting the mental health of their pilots, considering that they are already under a lot of pressure and in particular how far a pilot is able to dislose their issues without fearing the consequences.

    Innalillaha wa inna ilayhi rajioon.

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