Updated 02 April 2015

Andreas Lubitz: inside the mind of a suicide killer

CyberShrink explains how the mind of a killer works and what might have led Andreas Lubitz to end his life and those of many others in a dramatic plane crash.


In earlier, more religious times, suicide was regarded as murder, and what made it taboo was that by committing suicide you infringed on the property rights of God. God owned your life and your body, and therefore you were not allowed to damage what belonged to Him.

Survival not part of the plan

But things have changed. Once upon a time there were heroic people who were prepared to die for what they believed in . . .  Nowadays they want you to die for what they believe in.

This new phenomenon takes a variety of forms. Suicide bombers, for instance, kill themselves and as many others as possible. Previously, the precautions used to prevent bombers reaching vulnerable or sensitive targets relied on the assumption that perpetrators would want to perform their heinous deeds, and escape alive. If, however, they’re planning to die in the blast, their only consideration is to get as close as possible to the target – getting away is not part of the equation.

Read: How a murderer's mind works

As long as they’re convinced of a glorious reward in the hereafter, they’re willing victims – far cheaper than even a simple mechanical drone, and just as easily replaced. Adolescent jihadis, eager for the embraces of the promised 72 virgins, are imminently dispensable and fortunately unable to return for a debriefing on the joys of paradise.

Although this pilot has no known connection to any existing terror group, one could argue that what he did was indeed an act of terror. Al Qaeda and ISIS may have franchised their brand of barbarism, but terrorism doesn’t require a membership card. Terrorism is when you inflict horrible violence on one group of people in order to frighten and coerce another – and Lubitz achieved just that. For years to come you will look at the pilot/s of the plane you’re flying on and wonder if they can be trusted.

Going out with a bang

Like all the other people who have gone on a killing spree, at a school, military base or workplace, and got killed in the process, Lubitz seems to have been serving only his own twisted needs. Such people may have reached an impasse in their own lives and given up on solving their problems. They also feel angry and resentful towards society and want to go out with as big a bang as possible.

Read: A sane mass murderer?

Taking a bunch of other people with you also guarantees that you will be noticed and remembered for a very long time. In some cases they have issues with their employer, and this is a sure way to cause great financial and reputational damage.  

Analysts could hear Lubitz’s breathing and interpreted it as a sign of how calm he was, knowing he was going to die: “His breath was not of somebody who was struggling. He never said a single word. It was total silence in the cockpit for the ten past minutes. Nothing.”  We don’t know to what extent he had planned this event, but everything worked perfectly, almost as though he’d rehearsed it. 

His actions resemble those of a “spree killer”. Spree killers do not run amok – they carry out a well-prepared plan, calmly and efficiently. Their violence isn’t random – even when, as in this case, they don’t know the names and identity of their victims.   

There are similarities to the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings in 2012, when Adam Lanza killed his mother, then drove to the school where he killed 20 children and six staff before killing himself. Typically, the killings were not random – indiscriminate but focused. He went there to kill kids and teachers. He might not have cared specifically which ones; anyone within his chosen target groups would do.

'Everyone will know my name'

Like any mass murderer, the spree killer doesn’t feel any connection to or responsibility towards human society. Life has two teams: him and the rest of us. Whether or not we know it, we represent those he construes as an enemy, and are thus eligible as targets. His life has amounted to nothing of value, and he chooses to end it in a blaze of nothingness, ensuring it ends just as pointlessly for us as well.

Read: Terror takes mental toll

He may feel justified in taking revenge against the world, and in proving that though we may have overlooked him so far, we will now have to take him seriously and remember his name. He was unable to achieve what he most wanted from life, but made himself special by making other people miserable, and preventing them from achieving their goals as well. Someone claiming to be a girlfriend quoted Lubitz as saying, “One day I'm going to do something that will change the whole system, and everyone will know my name and remember.”

A serial killer kills numerous victims over a period of time, and is elusive because there is no specific link between him and his victims. The mass murderer, however, kills multiple victims at the same time. Though some are female, most are men. They feel humiliated and frustrated because they feel blocked from what they most want – they have lost their job or wife and want others to join them in their misery. The actual basis for their great feeling of injustice, while profound in their own eyes, often seems trivial to other people.

Read: Famous serial killers

As they want to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible they tend to prefer guns or explosives. Like a bomb, they build up rage which then explodes in a blast of violence. They bring about their own death or they surrender without struggle and endure their punishment.    

Unfortunately there’s not much we can do to protect society from this kind of killer. There are no significant warning signs, and the perpetrators don’t seem to want help from others.

Misplaced confidentiality

There has been a trend in recent years towards increased protection of the confidentiality of medical records on the basis of a right to personal privacy. Germany has excessively strict laws on confidentiality, even after death – possibly to the detriment of the safety of the general public.

The medical profession has always been strict about the need to protect doctor-patient confidentiality, but we should be debating whether this should be absolute, or whether exceptions may need to be made for the public good. If someone with HIV chooses to be wildly promiscuous or someone exposed to Ebola refuses to take precautions against infecting others, should their right to privacy not be weighed up against the common good? What if a pilot or air traffic controller bus driver develops severe visual impairment?

The Germanwings disaster perfectly illustrates this point. If Lubitz was suicidal, as has now been established, shouldn’t his doctors have been allowed, and indeed required, to report him to the airline and aviation authorities? 

By rights national and international law should require medical authorities to formally waive confidentiality laws in the case of people on whose good health and judgment the lives of others depend. Doctors should in these situations be protected if they waive privacy to protect others. 

Read more:

Could the Germanwings disaster have been prevented?

Antidepressant/suicide link?

Suicide kills more than wars

Image: Plane going down from Shutterstock


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