Aren’t “terrorists” depressed too?

The media has damaged me.

I must confess something.  I was watching CNN last week when the first reports of the Germanwings tragedy hit the airwaves.  The crash killed 150 people, including students, teachers, children, and the perpetrator, co-pilot Andreas Lubitz.  As an Arab American, I did what I always do when the news informs me of such terrible events.  I was watching the coverage, whispering to myself, “Please don’t be Arabs. Please don’t be Arabs.”  To be honest, I am quite embarrassed.  But this is what I do.  I can’t help it.

Of course, we all know what would have happened had Andreas been named Abdullah (sorry to all the Abdullahs out there).  I don’t think CNN would have spent its last week of coverage focusing on depression and mental health issues.  We also might have seen a different breed of “experts.”  Instead of getting the aviation and mental health kind, we would have gotten a steady dose of a quite different sort of specialist.

But Andreas is not Abdullah.   He’s the kid next door.  And the kid next door can’t be a vicious, terrorist criminal.  There must be something wrong with him, right?

Let’s be clear about what happened.  Andreas Lubitz was engaging in quite normal conversation with his senior pilot in the beginning of the flight.  The senior pilot then stepped out of the cockpit.  Moments later, Lubitz locked the cockpit door and began his fateful, slow descent.  As the pilot, crew, and passengers were in a frenzy, Lubitz was, by all accounts, calm and collected.  For those last several minutes, he didn’t say a word.  He didn’t speak his sorrows into the cockpit voice recorder.  He didn’t lament his life.  He didn’t ask for forgiveness.  He didn’t curse those who wronged him.  He didn’t cry.  As chaos was ensuing just feet from him, as the passengers, pilot, and crew were pleading and panicking, he just sat there, guiding the plane, with 149 other human beings, into the French Alps.

I’m not a mental health expert, but this doesn’t sound like the act of someone who wasn’t taking enough Prozac.  It sounds like a calculated crime, one committed by someone who was seeking attention.  But CNN is not talking about the criminality of the actor.  It is not looking to delve into whether or not he was an angry man looking to settle a score.  There have been no reporters knocking on his friends’ and relatives’ doors, asking for more information.  We have seen no “experts” trying to explain to us what it is about European culture that might lead someone to do such a terrible thing.  We have not heard about the degree of Lubitz’s connection to his Christian background.

We are not witnessing any of that.  So what is CNN spending all these valuable hours talking about?  Depression. “He was depressed,” they tell us.  “Depressed.”  This is yet another “D” word to add to the collection of expressions the media uses to describe non-Arab non-Muslim mass murderers.  Disturbed. Deranged. Delusional. And now, depressed.

As CNN educates us on aviation protocols and mental health issues, the trial of another criminal is going on in Massachusetts.  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the admitted Boston Marathon bomber, is facing life in prison (or perhaps death) for his role in the 2013 bombings that killed three people.  To my recollection, no one ever asked if he was “depressed.”  We might remember that in the aftermath of his capture, CNN interviewed family members, found out where the brothers slept, discovered what they ate, and talked to their friends.  We even spent a whole weekend getting really bad history lessons on Chechnya, Tsarnaev’s country of birth, though he came to America at the young age of eight.

By the way, do you know where Chechnya is?  It’s in the Caucasus Mountains.  Tsarnaev is an actual Caucasian.  But that’s doesn’t matter.  Tsarnaev is a Muslim, and Lubitz was not.  Tsarnaev’s religion and culture directed his actions, while Lubitz’s white Christianity is of no consequence.  No one has asked if Lubitz’s religious and cultural background informed his crime.  In fact, almost no one has even called him a “criminal.”

In France, Andreas Lubitz was “depressed.”  In Newtown, Adam Lanza was “disturbed.”  In Aurora, James Holmes was “deranged.”  But, in Boston, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was “motivated.”

Terrorism is basically defined as when someone does something violent or intimidating to get attention.  Some might say that terrorism must also have some sort of political objective.  But does it really matter whether the attention you’re trying to get is for some idea or for yourself?  And if so, which is actually worse?  Treating crimes differently based simply on the background of the perpetrator effectively excuses certain acts and misunderstands others.

Isn’t anyone who would carry out any of those grisly crimes disturbed, deranged, or delusional?  And what is it about Dzhokhar that makes us think he was any less “depressed” than the others?

Now, you might ask why I am getting so worked up about the coverage of the Germanwings tragedy.  You might point out that the whole story has nothing to do with Muslims or Arabs.  But I guess I see and hear the news in a different way.  When news agencies discovered that Lubitz was not one of us, they started giving me experts on aviation and depression.  They declared his act “not terrorism.”  Maybe I’m damaged, but the minute they did all of that, this story became about me too.

About Amer Zahr 181 Articles
Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."


  1. In Australia airport security authorities are reported to be hassling over 400 Muslim passengers a day. So far after hassling many thousands of travellers they have turned up about two or three people who seemed to justify suspicions but there have been no prosecutions yet. Perhaps they should start targeting blond, blue eyed Europeans?

  2. People like labels which they can use to distance themselves from or affiliate with others. The labels don’t mean very much, but they become socially relevant anyway.
    I too was hoping this guy was not an Arab, not an Iranian, not Jewish, not African American and not mentally ill. I knew he was not a woman. No woman has done a serial killing and I know of only one who hijacked a plane.
    So most of the groups I’m defensive about are in the clear. But I’m getting pretty pissed off about the recurrence of people with mental illness in the news for some outrageous killing. With at least 20% of Americans having suffered depression some time in their lives, a few of them will sometimes turn up among the dangerous and violent.
    This doesn’t mean the whole category of such people are just lying in wait to murder. indeed people who are mentally ill (and not on street drugs) are not any more likely than other young males to go on a shooting, plane crashing spree. But all it takes is a few notorious cases and then, lawmakers start passing laws to go after anyone in the new dangerous category. Suddenly, people who surely have enough problems to deal with are now the subject of more bias and discrimination. Too bad. If it were up to me I’d just keep all young men away from guns, cars and planes.

  3. I still get that sinking feeling whenever I hear about these plane crashes or attacks on a city somewhere, and I say the same thing: “Please don’t say it was Arabs, Iranians, Muslims, etc”.

  4. After reading Amer’s very observant article as well as the comments, I conclude that there are a great many of us pleading: “Please don’t say it was Arabs (or Iranians or Muslims.” Look what the media have done.

  5. I, like you and many Arabs and Moslems, when terror strikes we pray it’s not committed by a Moslem. More often than not we end up thanking God when the perpetrator is not a Moslem. I completely lost you for voicing your resentment of the media for not labeling Andreas Lubitz a terrorist, for passing him as mentally ill and for not discussing his Christian background. Lubitz acted as an individual, a disturbed individual, and not as a member of an organized terror group. Lubitz did not choose his victims for being anything but faceless souls, who are they did not matter to him and his sick mind. Yes, he committed an unimaginable act of terror but not in the name of a religious or political entity or cause unlike the Tsarnaev brothers who killed and maimed in a deliberate act of terror in support of their twisted beliefs. Should we be sorry for their plight and treatment just because they are Moslems? When Timothy McVeigh carried out the Oklahoma City bombing neither the press nor the system gave him and his right wing cohorts sympathy or excuses.
    I agree with you that had Andreas been named Abdullah we would have seen a different initial reaction from the press, wouldn’t you? Your fears would have come to fruition. Don’t you expect such reaction at times when horrific acts of terror are committed on a regular basis by a plethora of groups in the name of Islam? The daily news and images of terror perpetrated by these groups are liable to damage Islam’s reputation. This has been going on for several years and it seems to be rising in intensity.
    Let’s not stand by feeling affronted and being defensive. We need to start by facing our ugly reality of violence and abject terror that has indiscriminately killed, and continue to kill, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Moslems. We need to start putting the blame where it belongs, our shoulders, and not feel like helpless victims of the Western World. Maybe then we can start rejecting this reality, healing the festering wounds and taking our rightful place among the World’s community.

    • On our shoulders Mustafa? Yes some of the people who commit these crimes in Syria and Iraq and other places are Muslim and I’m Muslim. (Not the ones committing anti Muslim pogroms in Central Africa and Burma though, to name just two.) But I’ve been on a peaceful path all my life, as have most of the Muslims I know. And I encourage others to take a peaceful path, as do most of the Muslims I know, especially community leaders. And in my country, Australia, Muslim leaders who speak out publicly against the likes of DAESH get death threats, not from DAESH sympathisers but from anti Muslim groups.

  6. Be proud to be “ABDULLAH” the slave of Allah . It is a priceless tag to to carrywith. An Abdullah cares for the whole family of Allah.

  7. The media tries to hold everyone who isn’t white accountable for their actions while absolving white people of their actions and looking for excuses as to why those whites who did horrible things aren’t “that bad.” They use mentally ill as an excuse because no one chooses to be mentally ill but Muslims choose to be terrorists and blacks choose to be thugs but good ole Tommy who just get killed 20 children didn’t choose to be mentally ill. He was just an unfortunate person that needed a hug.

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