Take a good look at these two wholesome young men. Other than the purity of their faces, they have much in common. Both of them lived in Germany. Both of them grew up in comfortable, well-adjusted households. Both of them attended flight school in the United States. And both of them deliberately crashed commercial airplanes in horrific events that killed scores of innocent lives.
Yet, incredibly, only one of them is considered a terrorist.
From Andreas Lubitz to Ziad Jarrah, the A to Z of Terrorism
The man on the left is Ziad Jarrah, a Lebanese national who along with three other hijackers, commandeered United Flight 93 and crashed it in a field on September 11, 2001, when he was only 26-years-old. The smiling face on the right is that of Andreas Lubitz , a German copilot who deliberately crashed Germanwings Flight 9525 into the French Alps on March 25, 2015, when he was twenty-eight-years old. He killed himself and 149 others in what authorities and the media are calling a ‘mass murder suicide.’
Almost in the same breath when Lubitz’s actions were revealed, authorities were quick to deny that this was an act of terrorism. They acknowledged that they couldn’t label it as a suicide either, given the 149 lives Lubitz took with him when he locked out the senior pilot and deliberately programmed the plane to fall from the sky and slam in a mountain rage. Not long after that revelation, a heated debate erupted on social media as to whether Lubtiz’s actions are tantamount to terrorism.
As more information becomes available about his life and his possible motives, we may ultimately end up calling him a recluse, insane, depressed, twisted, paranoid, schizophrenic, troubled, burned out, even criminal. But he will never be labelled a terrorist.
There was never any doubt as to Ziad Jarrah’s credentials as a terrorist, because he really was one. Search for the definition of ‘terrorism’ on Google and Wikipedia will be the first to tell you that terrorism is commonly defined as any violent acts intended to create terror, perpetrated for a religious, political, or ideological goal, and which deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants.
Going with that definition, and if it is indeed proven that Lubitz was acting of his own accord for some psychological motive or demon, he will never be slapped with the terrorist moniker by the news media, even though he is no less of a terrorist than Ziad Jarrah.
The problem is not whether we are using the label accurately, but rather, the very function of the label itself. The accepted definition of terrorism focuses heavily on the ‘who’ and ‘why’ of it (the motivations and required outcomes of terrorism), but only brushes lightly by the act itself (the actual violence perpetuated by terrorism). At best, the term is a useful prism for government security and counter-terrorism agencies, or academics and geopolitical researchers. But unless we start adapting it to the realities of the world we live in, it will continue to degrade as a useful tool for public discourse.
The 149 people who Lubitz massacred are not any less dead because his motivations were personal, rather than religious or political. The families of those 149 people killed are no less devastated by their loss, nor are they more comforted to know that Lubitz didn’t rob them of their loved ones for jihad, but because he was just a raving lunatic. But perhaps most pertinent to the utility of the definition of terrorism, we, members of the public who witnessed this horrific event transpire, have not been any less terrorized or intimidated to trust in the safety of air travel because Lubitz was insane rather than ISIS. The next time you get on a plane you should be equally concerned your pilot is a deranged killer, as the possibility he’s a religious nut job.
There is a very tangible danger to reserving the blanket term of insanity for people like Lubitz who commit murderous crimes for personal motivations, rather than calling them terrorists. By doing so we reinforce the implication that genuine acts of terrorism motivated by religion or politics are not themselves also a form of insanity. In other words, that Andreas Lubitz is not considered a terrorist, is just as irrational that Ziad Jarrah, and any terrorist who kills innocent lives in the name of any ideology, is not considered insane. How else can you characterize the 9/11 attacks, the ISIS Hollywood-choreographed beheadings and burning of human beings, other than utter madness? Whatever illness of the mind, heart or soul that forced Lubitz to commit his unspeakable crime is no different than the charred soul of Jarrah, or the legions of young men flocking to swell the ranks of terrorist organizations with the intent to kill and pillage unconditionally.
There is of course a more practical reason why it’s hard for the media or the public at large to start labeling lone criminals like Lubitz as terrorists. Since 9/11, the word ‘terrorist’ has become less of a technical description, and more of a racial and ethnic catchall. In other words, ‘terrorist’ is a shorthand for a visual image of a young, disenfranchised, angry, Arab, Muslim, brown-skinned male. I am not saying that this association is borne out of malicious intent or a conspiracy to vilify Arabs or Muslims. It is merely a reflection that in today’s world, most terrorist acts are spearheaded in the name of Islam, by young, disenfanchised, angry, Arab, Muslim, brown-skinned males, and rarely a young, affluent, white European. But statistical prevalence is not a sufficient excuse for distorted labels. Follicular dendritic cell sarcoma is a very rare type of blood cancer. Fewer than 100 cases have been reported in medical literature world wide. But it’s still a form of cancer.
Semantics are semantics, one could argue. What difference would it make if we started defining chilling acts of violence spurred by insanity or pure evil as a form of terrorism, or indeed that ideologically motivated acts of terrorism are a form of insanity? A huge difference, as it turns out. One that could make our world a safer place.
If terrorism is redefined as a form of madness borne out of the germ of radicalization, then maybe more resources would be diverted to fight terrorism at the root by diverting much needed resources to counter-radicalization in addition to counter-terrorism. By the same token, if people like Andreas Lubitz are classified as terrorists, the same level of global vigilance and security to identify and neutralize terrorists would be accorded to them. The 149 lives Andreas Lubitz murdered could have been spared if he had been on any one of the multiple international no-fly lists reserved for terrorists and any one remotely suspected of terrorist links.
The myopic and misguided classification of terrorism currently in use is akin to the misguided and knee-jerk policy of reinforcing cockpit doors of commercial aircraft after 9/11.
What a dreadful irony that on March 25, 2015, the impenetrable cockpit door of the Germanwings Airbus that was intended to protect the passengers by keeping the terrorists locked out, contributed to their demise by keeping the terrorist Andreas Lubitz locked in.