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.