Monday, March 30, 2015
We admire pilots; the mentally ill, less so
"As I was at 5," Tolstoy wrote, "so I am today." Which I mention only to add a bit of literary heft to the following admission, which otherwise might seem humiliatingly juvenile.
Airline pilots sometimes stay at the Holiday Inn in the Sun-Times Building (which sounds so much better than saying the Sun-Times is located under a Holiday Inn, though I suppose it's a matter of perspective).
They're always getting out of town cars and buses, handsome in their sharp uniforms, toting their special pilot luggage. On my way into the office I see them and think, "Ooo, a pilot" with the same eagerness I did as a small boy flying Pan Am to New York City. I'd hurry up to one and ask for a pair of official pilot's wings, but he'd look at me strangely and, at 54, I've finally learned restraint.
So I think well of pilots. Most people do We trust pilots, literally, with our lives.
In a 2013 survey of the most trusted professions, pilots were No. 2, after firefighters, with 86 percent of the respondents expressing confidence in them (for comparison purposes, newspaper reporters scored 21 percent in a Gallup poll taken about the same time, but remember, when discussing journalism, experts insist there is a "multiple by 5" rule which means the public actually trusts reporters 105 percent).
So in the wake of Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings pilot who crashed Flight 9525 into the Alps last week, killing himself and 149 other people, nobody is going to react, "Fuckin' pilots! Always killing folk."
Yet we need to understand this, or try to, though I sometimes suspect by "understanding" we mean find a convenient label to slap over the tragedy so we can more easily forget it. So we grasp at stuff.
Islamic fundamentalism is the Type O universal donor to explain such situations. Happens enough that we accept it as a cause. A copy of the Qu'ran, a name with a lot of fricatives and we'd be home free. But that doesn't seem the case here. The "German" aspect is a possibility—"those Germans, they do like their mass murder...." Nope, his being a pilot draws him into the realm of BMW engineers in white coats. It's not like he was some skinhead from Bavaria.
Lubitz being 27 has potential: these kids nowadays.... no, plenty of responsible 27-year-olds who don't slaughter those in their care.
Which leaves mental illness, and there are indications, which the press latched onto, politely with the mainstream media, not so much with the tabloids.
"WHY ON EARTH WAS HE ALLOWED TO FLY?" the Daily Mail howled, under "Suicide pilot had a long history of depression."
Which I noticed when the depressed started passing it around Twitter.
"I have a long history of depression," Londoner Juliette Burton wrote. "Should I not be allowed to drive? Work? Contribute?"
She has a point. Though it took me a while to grasp it. Twitter encourages immediate reply, not careful thought. Others chimed in: "Glad the Germanwings coverage isn't descending into harmful, misleading hysteria," wrote GlobalNews' Anna Mehler Paperny.
My gut reaction was: is it? The guy flew his plane into a mountain. "Why on earth was he allowed to fly?" seems a question well worth positing. I tweeted back that this is just the media trying to explain why this happened. Maybe I was being a low-esteem journalist defending his kind. Even as I did, I knew instantly where she was coming from: if Depression=Murder then we'd all be dead, in the same way that if Muslim=Terrorist, we'd all be dead.
"Blaming depression isn't 'explaining.' It's irrelevant," another Canadian chimed in. "Did he also have a dog and like Cheerios at breakfast?"
The best path is probably somewhere between the media blaming depression and sufferers leaping to dismiss it. By Sunday the press was discussing Lubitz's eye problems, and as someone who has worn glasses since he was 6, it bothered me not at all. If you look to the news for self-validation, you're already in trouble, no matter what the headlines say.