So, When Can We Call the Germanwings Pilot a Terrorist?

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So, let’s get this straight: You can deliberately crash a plane into a mountain, kill 149 innocent people and not be called a terrorist? And then, when evidence emerges that you methodically planned your execution, the media still won’t call you what you are? Instead, they’ll call you a terrorist by another name.


Troubled, but not a criminal?

Sick, but not a thug?

Crazy, but not a terrorist.

This is white privilege en fleek.

It has now been confirmed that in late March, German co-pilot Andreas Lubitz callously planned and carried out his mass murder with pathological determination when he crashed Germanwings Flight 9525 into the French Alps. Despite the lives of so many being shattered, the mainstream media has remained steadfast to the idea that this is a story of a “normal guy” who mysteriously snapped.

The significance of race and the power of whiteness is not limited to terms we use but extends to the narratives we seek, the humanity we afford, and the ways we imagine “good” and “evil” in response to human tragedies like this. It does not end with the refusal to examine why or even acknowledge that white men are disproportionately serial mass murderers.

Even before the media arrived at the crash site, it had already begun to spin webs of innocence around this white man. Lubitz had to have a mental illness or have been suffering from some overwhelming stress, because in the dominant racial imagination, white people can’t be terrorists despite hundreds of years of global history that prove otherwise. Not surprisingly, for several months, much of media attention and investigation has focused on Lubitz’s state of mind. CNN reported at the time that medical records revealed that Lubitz was suicidal at one point and had undergone psychotherapy.

The New York Times and USA Today offered similar, sympathetic narratives. USA Today reported interviews with co-workers and friends who knew the pilot. Despite only meeting Lubitz a couple of times, Klaus Radke described Lubitz as a regular Joseph. “I got to know him as a very nice, funny and polite person. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” said Radke.

Similarly, Peter Ruecker, a member of the flight club Lubitz belonged to, emphasized his humanity, describing him as someone with dreams. “Andreas became a member of the club as a youth to fulfill his dream of flying,” the club said in a statement on its website released before the disclosure that the co-pilot had downed the jet. “He fulfilled his dream, the dream he now paid for so dearly with his life.” The message here is that it’s the plane and his dream’s fault. Never mind his victims or the many more who live in fear—a young white man had a dream deferred. (Cue a Negro spiritual.)


With a steady loop of pictures of him running, or sitting in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, we have been told over and over again that Lubitz was neither evil nor barbaric but just one individual who simply committed an atrocious act. Without explanation—a note left behind, a videotaped confession explaining his plan—as to why a man like him could commit such a heinous act, the media continues to ask, “Why?”

Compare this with the refusal to ask and seek answers or explanations regarding Muslims participating in terrorist acts, or black people in America who take to the streets and riot. Merely asking why is dismissed as “sanctioning or justifying” their actions. Compare this with the erasure of the sociological conditions in urban neighborhoods, the decades of racial trauma and frustration that are the context for understanding Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore. Yet, with Lubitz, we get sympathetic and humanizing pieces that could have been written by his parents. Because he is a “good white guy,” he doesn’t fit the stereotype of someone to be feared or labeled a terrorist. And yet we are so scared, we have to reconcile that fear. 


Paging Dr. Phil. 

It is no wonder that any effort to link Lubitz, or any number of white mass shooters (Adam Lanza, James Holmes and others), to terrorism is met with denial and outrage. This reluctance has everything to do with race, to preserving narratives that locate evil and threats to peace in bodies of color across the globe.


In a piece titled “Everyone’s Trying Really Hard Not to Call the Germanwings Co-Pilot a Terrorist,” Zak Cheney-Rice makes clear that Lubitz cannot be a terrorist because of the way terrorism is defined: “That term is reserved for a special type of person, someone with brown skin, a foreign-sounding name, roots in the Middle East or North Africa and a progressively anti-Western Internet history—probably typed in Arabic.” Those who strike fear, who terrorize a college campus, a movie theater or someplace thousands of feet in the air, are let off the hook when they don’t fit the profile.

Because Andreas Lubitz was a white man; because he liked the Golden Gate Bridge; because he ran marathons; because his family and friends loved him; because he was a pilot, someone entrusted and empowered with great responsibility, he cannot be called a terrorist. He cannot be a terrorist because he was sick. And since he’s not a terrorist, we must figure out what led him to do this.


Lubitz and the lives he took may be gone, but there is no death to white privilege. Even for mass murderers, it transcends the grave and lives in eternity.

David J. Leonard is an associate professor in the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University, Pullman.