By Victoria Massie
“The function, the very serious function, of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”—Toni Morrison
I’ve been haunted by Morrion’s words as details unfold daily around the crash of Germanwings Flight 4U 9525 into the the French Alps last Thursday. This is a tragedy, more so as reports circulate about the cause. Co-Pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately locked his co-pilot out of the cockpit, pushed the button activating the loss of altitude, ignored multiple calls from air traffic control, as he lead himself and 149 others to their end. Officials, having recovered the black box recorder, have noted the loud banging of the co-pilot to have Lubitz let him in. Lubitz did not. The background is filled with people screaming. All the while, Lubitz, can be heard breathing, in and out, normally, saying not a word, just breathing, until he, and everyone else trapped on the plane, stopped.
But what do any of these details have anything to do with Morrison’s words? It has to do with the fact that four days have passed since that crash, and I have yet to see major headlines identify Lubitz with anything that might require he, even in his death, take responsibility for his execution of a plane full of people. It has to do with the fact that the media seem to trying to figure out any and every means of making sure Lubitz is not held accountable for his actions. It has to do with why so much energy is being placed into waiting until every meticulous detail of Lubitz’ life is brought under close scrutiny before the media may begin to call him a murderer. Just as racism forces people of color to scourge every ounce of our existence to explain our right to exist, the other side of this distraction is that those unmarked by color are never expected to. Distraction, for some, operates less as means for explaining themselves and more as a tool ensuring they always has the ability to be, to do, anything, even something like mass murder.
One of the first angles taken toward Lubitz in media reports was that he committed suicide, which is not false. Lubitz did take his own life. The problem with suicide is that he wasn’t the only person on the aircraft. Additionally, as reports sought to focus on Lubitz’ “willingness to destroy aircraft” and that he “wanted to destroy plane”, we were being expected to mourn an aircraft and not the people in it. From the very beginning, a narrative was being constructed to isolate the crash to the pilot and empathy towards property loss. Despite being grossly inaccurate and disrespectful, this collectively diverts Lubitz from having to take responsibility for what he did. “Suicide” allows the erasure of the 149 deaths, and centers the problem on a pilot willing to destroy the machine he paid to fly. Here, deaths become negligible. But simultaneously, Lubitz again gets to claim all deaths as his, this time with the help of a media circus so focused on isolating his death that they deny the dignity of each of his victims to have their own, linked together by the fact that their lives were taken by his hands.
The most recent angle includes photos of Lubitz running a marathon, him sitting in front of the San Francisco bridge, and information that he had depression. Again, these details may not be false. I do not question that he ran once, that he was in the Bay Area at some point, or that he may have had a mental illness. But I am hesitant to take their truths at face value. We live in world where a Nigerian girl can have a timed bomb strapped to her chest by a terrorist organization and no one questions her being called a suicide bomber instead of, more accurately, a murder victim; we live in a world where we are more likely to see the smiling yearbook photo of a murderer than of his victim(s); we live in a world where mental illness conveniently serves as scapegoat for mass murders perpetrated by white men. That is to say, we live in a world that obscures just as much as it tells, where the same terms applied to different circumstances demonstrate the disparately unequal space given to empathize with people, to give them complexity, particularly the kind of space being given to Lubitz. And, more often than not, the space offered to Lubitz is almost exclusively reserved for white men.
Each new detail provides another opportunity to reinscribe a sacred space for men like Lubitz to make ruins of anyone and anything, even after their deaths, with the assurance they never have to take full responsibility for their destruction. And this will be relentless. Over and over again, we will read about another aspect of Lubitz that makes it impossible to connect his being with his actions, to connect his actions to crime, to a crime that he deliberately committed, even though that is what happened. Every angle will be exhausted until we forget that, at the bottom line, 149 people’s lives were taken by a man for no other reason than the simple one that he could and did. Every angle will be exhausted until we remember the world we now live in never means to find men like Lubitz completely guilty of taking anything or anyone for no other reason than it is invested in that always having already been the case.
Victoria Massie is a PhD Candidate at UC Berkeley currently doing fieldwork in Cameroon..
Photo: Wikimedia Commons