In those days, you must remember, an aeroplane was a sign and a wonder. [H.G. Wells]
I have a memory of one of the times I thought I was going to die. There have been many times I thought I was going to die. What is unusual about this one is that it wasn’t a symptom of my own psychopathological tendencies. What is relevant about it is that unlike Andreas Lubitz the pilot of the air plane I was on didn’t destroy my body in a flaming wreck embedded in the Spanish mountains.
I recount the story in part because I recount it whenever I can. It’s a good story, and one that always gives me the enjoyment of a kind of sub-traumatic recall. In other contexts I use it to illustrate something about the use of physiological priming in the attention economy. I recount it here and now because I think it gives some distant pale shadow of how it must have felt to be on flight 9525.
I was flying out of Malaga airport after having spent a couple of months on the outskirts of a small but expanding agricultural town in rural Andalucia. I had been visiting my Dad, staying with him and lazily helping out on a horse ranch, where he lives and works, set down on the edge of a heavily polluted river in a valley that carves the town in half, separating the poor side from the slightly less poor. I had been trying to sort myself out, get my head fixed, pull myself from an existential lassitude that had lasted years, and had set myself to some physical work. I had repainted most of the exterior walls of the compound, and some of the interior walls of the guest apartments. I enjoyed the feeling of the hot sun on my skin and the night’s unblemished blackness. They were historical feelings, atavistic sensations, and along with the fissures shattering the arid clay beneath my feet, its scratching dust on my skin and clothes, and in my lungs, made me think of the first hominids. After a time I left, not much happier but with a plan, carried home by aircraft.
Once we were in the air and cruising- those first hominids far from my mind- the lights dipped, the fuselage of the plane shook, and an insistent stabbing noise, an alarm of some kind, sending out audiospikes of anxiety, an electronic panic signal, a steady, constant pulse measuring the airplane’s vital signs as though it were a patient in some intensive care unit, perched on the precipice of life, ready to give in, to let us glide for a while before plunging down towards the uncaring mountains beneath us. That noise was the only shape emerging in the darkness. I could make out the eyes on the heads atop the craning necks of other passengers turning to meet my own searching gaze. A communication without words: is this it, are we going down, are we about to die up here in this metal container, strangers suddenly brought together to die alone? Terror circulating through the air as overhead screens slowly whirred down from above our heads. Would this play some message?- I’ve wasted my life. Would it be the captain explaining things?- I’m still so young. “Sorry but a fault in the engines…” – I don’t want to die. Clutching the arms of my seat. Sweat all over me. This curious silence between us all. This unwillingness to be the first to openly acknowledge the horror. “This plane has been repurposed for a mission of jihad upon…” – There is nothing I can do, I am helpless here, paralysed. A stinging behind the eyes like tears. A surging nervousness up the back; stomach emptied; full autonomic neuro-endochrine priming only to stall in that cage at 30,000 feet. Images of friends and family.
And then the screens rolled their message:
a brightly lit and gaudy fragrance advert. An air steward appeared smiling behind a trolley selling the perfume. The light had come up. The noise had faded out to silence. We weren’t going to crash. Life would go on. I looked around to the others who were looking back at me; none of us quite believing we were safe, as if we had just been wrenched from a night terror. I don’t remember how the rest of the flight went. I don’t remember landing or going home.
Unlike the 149 passengers, pilot and co-pilot of the Germanwings flight 9525 I didn’t die in an air crash. I wasn’t the victim of a spectacular mass murder-suicide. Still, something in me had been changed by the accidentally (?) simulated air crash, and for weeks after I would listen to cockpit recordings of aviation disasters. I yearned to be closer to that experience, the threat of which, and the instant impossible preparation for, had been physiologically indistinguishable from the real thing. Like all self-conscious organisms I have this fascination and buried desire for my own death. Here it was. Those recordings put me back in the plane.
that the [co]pilot is pressing the buttons of the flight monitoring system to put into action the descent mode. The action of altitude selection could not be anything but deliberate.
This is the judgement of Brice Robin, the Marseille prosecutor in charge of the investigation into the crash. This judgement is based on evidence gathered from telemetric flight data and from listening to the recordings of the black box voice recorder. Much has been made of the fact that in the last minutes of those lives Andreas Lubitz’s can be heard breathing a steady untroubled breath. These, his electronic remains, the morbid parody of a data ghost, a pseudo-EVP event, are recovered as fragments of the juridical investigation of the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour la sécurité de l’aviation civile (BEA). In this case the investigators use these sources to “give a testimony, narrating the flight history with accuracy and impartiality” (wikipedia) according to an epistemological frame in which it is possible to reconstruct from this technical auto-detection not only the recorded events but also the psychological climate in which they took place. When we come to the statements made regarding Lubitz’s breathing the impartial detection and re-constructive work has bled into the performance of a spontaneous hive-mind psychological autopsy. From the functionally legitimate claims to objectivity for the flight recorder’s telemetry and the digital storage and rendering of the vocal emissions of the cabin crew we segue into the morbid work of a thanatological hermeneutics that attempts to recreate the sense of the absent other through such audio. Such a hermeneutic corresponds to the idea of that one can objectively conjure the ‘audible essence of Andreas Lubitz’ in conjunction with the codes, the words that need to be uttered, the forms respected, derived from the psy-ritual of the psychological autopsy.
The psychological autopsy is an autopsy that comes to the apotheosis of the dualism that remains hidden in the heart of the mentalist accounts of mental health. That is to say, it is an autopsy without a body; an investigation wherein the object of investigation, the evidence, is, as in the Perfect Crime, necessarily missing. The psychological autopsy is a procedure, an algorithmically guided set of actions falling within an established institutional regulator, that attempts to reconstruct the ‘mental state’ of the dead at the moments prior to death. It is most often used in cases of suicide. Usually this is done by collecting, examining and interrogating any marks left by the dead whether these traces are suicide notes, diaries or other pieces of writings, the impression of colleagues, co-workers, friends, family and lovers, any other available sources including voice recordings. As the expert suicidologist Edwin S. Sneidman explains
The primary purpose of the psychological autopsy is quite simple: to assist the coroner in making decisions for the death certificate as to the most appropriate mode of death – the modes of death are natural, accidental, suicide, and homicide- where the mode of death, at first look, seems equivocal or uncertain [Sneidman, 2004. Autopsy of a suicidal mind. Oxford: OUP. p31.
He goes on to state that this usually ‘devolves’ to a choice between suicide and accidental death- a vacillation in which many completed suicides are hidden through being recorded as the latter in order to avoid the shame of breaching our relentlessly pro-life morality. This doesn’t only help to maintain that pro-life morality, and hide the full scale of suicidal waves, but it also keep suicide as a dirty shameful act that one must do in secret and by occult measures- thereby increasing the chances of surviving the attempt. As Sarah Perry of The View From Hell discusses at length in her excellent book this means more shame, more despair, more disability, and the chances of people who desperately want out of existence being condemned to life through paralysis and the refusal of assisted dying. What Perry doesn’t mention is that many people who want to be sure of dying by their own acts will go on commit murder-suicides to be killed by cop or will do something with a very fucking low chance of survival…like, for instance, crash a plane into a mountain. Driving into traffic is a way of dying that we know is incredibly difficult to distinguish from an accident and which people may opt for because of this fact (cf. Thomas Joiner’s Why People Die by Suicide for more discussion of this). Between a car and a plane which one will be more sure? It is no secret that there have been a number of other suicide attempts carried out via air crash. But deeper elaborations on these matters will have to be postponed. What is important is that it has been ruled out that Lubitz was having a heart attack or that he was in a temporary psychosis: it was no accident.
What we see in Brice’s remarks above is the ascription that the acts carried out by Lubitz ‘deliberate’, a contention echoed by Schneidman when he states that the psy-autopsy also seeks to ‘understand the why of the death’ [emphasis in original]. So we get attributions of agency and intent to Lubitz, and we are also introduced to the truth of the “bodiless autopsy”; that is, the procedure aims not to re-construct but to produce a narrative account of the suicide-murderer that discretely, although not necessarily cleanly, gives reasons for his actions. To provide reasons is to provide an account that sits nicely with our social systems of expectation and to settle down with a sense that it all makes sense. Even if Lubitz acts can judged bizarre, monstrous, criminal, or insane they also nonetheless happened for a reason. Even the most disturbing and socially aberrant acts can be made to have happened for a reason and we can go to bed shielded from the base level of the world’s horror. What’s more we can do so snug in the full infantilism of the sing-song phrase that perfectly sums up the just-world fallacy. This is not to criticise; after all, in order to cope with being alive everyone has to deploy a range of functional delusions, and those who don’t end up like Lubitz.
The only sounds, authorities said, were those of pounding on the cockpit door, Lubitz’s steady breathing and, eventually, screaming passengers (cnn, 28.03.2015)
This is why Lubitz’s breathing is so important. Almost every single report repeats the same message: his breathing was steady, there was no signs of physical problems, no deranged schizophrenic speech, indeed, uncannily, no speech at all. Just breath. But when the haunted voice recorder replayed its ghosts within the context of the epistemological frame of a bodiless autopsy ritual designed to magically enter the mind of the deceased that breathing, eerie and horrible as it may be, became a confession. The pure physiological fact of breathing may well indicate a behavioural and neurological state and thereby suggest the shape of the phenomenal experience, but here it magically becomes able to provide us access to the mind of Andreas Lubitz. It is worth quoting Robin once more:
“We could hear human breathing inside the cabin,” said Mr Robin, “and this breathing noise we heard up until the moment of final impact. That means that the co-pilot was alive. Apparently he was breathing normally, so this is not someone having a heart attack, for example.
“You don’t get the impression that there was any particular panic, because the breathing is always the same. The breathing is not panting. It’s a classic, human breathing. It was absolute silence in the cockpit.”
The traumatic and terroristic nature of Lubitz’s specific “mode of death” is so excessive a wounding of the social systems of expectation that it is necessary even to say out loud, in case there could be any doubt, that Lubitz’s breathing was human. What else might it have been? Demonic? Possessed? The breathing of Evil? A pure Force of animosity? Of course- and as is so often the case in murders and suicides- the theological concept of Evil must be evoked to register the force of trauma and the extent to which it shatters the assumptive world of predictable behaviours and comfortable narratives. Evil must be introduced in order to acknowledge the utterly excessive nature of the violence of those acts simply because we have no other concept capable of doing so whilst leaving us in the comforting dark regarding the determinants of those actions.
How strange to call his breathing “classic human breathing” almost as if to suggest it was modelled, feigned, faked somehow. In this astonished unbelieving reiteration of his humanness we get the sense that Lubitz was not human even as it is confirmed that he was. Another vacillation, this time one in which the suicide, especially the murder-suicide, is included within “the human” only by his exclusion, his position undecidable- and therefore fascinating. At the same time this breathing operates as a double accusation: first he was calm as he killed himself and 150 others; secondly, his calm was unnatural. This is also why that eerie silence is emphasised. It is as if we are sliding between a report of a crime and a horror story.
Given all this it seems that we can paraphrase Judith Butler to suggest that the epistemological frame around Lubitz’s murder-suicide is one in which the possibility of an ethical response to his breathing as the evidence of his essence requires a normativity of the audio field. This order conditions and constrains what will and will not constitute the truth of him self, the truth that can be offered about him, the truth by which he might be known and become recognizably un-human, the story we might give of him. We prefer comforting fictions to the truth: when it comes to murder-suicides most of us don’t really want to know. To even discuss it risks the contagious nature of the malignant unhuman force that we of course know very well isn’t real (“we could hear human breathing”)- which is, after all, one of the very oldest superstitions about mental illness, and one of the reasons for our cultural taboo on suicide.
In the next post I’ll look at how this frame of evil blends with the repulsed fascination surrounding Andreas Lubitz’s mental health. Specifically I’ll look at the reactions to claims that he was suffering from depression and the idea that his suicide is a symptom of an illness or disease. Eventually I want to look at murder-suicide as an attempt to refuse the conclusion that we must die alone. I’d like to go on and continue this post right now but, alas, a friend has suddenly appeared.