Europe is in turmoil since Tuesday when a Germanwings plane crashed in the French Alps killing the 150 people on board. Two days after the accident the turmoil is far from abating because French investigators reported the recordings from the cockpit provide evidence that the plane was deliberately crashed by the co-pilot. Such a piece of news is more surprising and scary than any other because human actions are more difficult to control than technical failures. It actually made me think that every time you take a plane you are placing your life in the hands of those piloting it, not a thought that will calm the anxiety about flying I have been recently developing.
This piece of news –and how it is reported around the world– is quickly becoming an excellent corpus for exploring the politics of race at work in the Western world. Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot, was a white male German citizen and this fact has entirely shaped the terms and frame of the news. After a few hours of investigation the French prosecutor had already ruled out that this was a terror attack. Newspapers were quick at speaking of ‘suicide’, The Guardian spoke of ‘killing’, while The Independent of ‘suicide and mass murder’. How to refer to what happened has been one of the main issues. Had the guy been a German citizen of Turkish descent journalists, aeronautics personnel, government officials, and plain citizens would be speaking of ‘terror’ even before the beginning of the investigation. Things would have actually been easier to handle in terms of how to frame the debate because this is indeed the point: race in its specific connexion to Islam is what allows for ‘terror’ to take place.
But as Lubitz was white and German the consequences are entirely different. This is not a terror attack so his family is not under police surveillance and airports are not in a high state of alert. One easily gets the picture: when the agent of a wicked act is a brown and Muslim-related man, that man is the embodiment of ‘evil’, nothing more than the antithesis of humanity, and the attack is a terror attack; otherwise there has to be a sort of psychological explanation for somebody ‘essentially’ good carrying out an isolated evil act.
The investigation and reports are thus turning now to Lubitz’s state of mind and his apparent history of depression, and some outlets have even speculated that he was going through a romantic split. People in Twitter have pointed –rightfully– that it is not depression what kills and that there is no intrinsic link between suffering from depression and being a potential mass murderer. Although I couldn’t agree more with the points raised in this respect I have to say that being granted the possibility of having a mental health issue, of acknowledging that psychological or emotional issues could eventually affect your social behaviour can also be read as one of the manifestations of white privilege. Thus when a white man –and yes, I think this is also articulated around the gender axe– crosses a gross line, the West –media, police, government, civil society– is willing to ask the question of ‘how an “essentially” good man can do something so atrocious’ *. Conversely, when the man is non-white, and on top of it, he is a Muslim, that question will be never asked because the answer is taken for granted: he will be the personification of evil.
* I don’t believe in ‘essences’ and actually challenge them, I am just reporting this from within a Western frame of representation. See my last post about Angelina Jolie’s ovaries and the question of ‘feminine essence’.