Details are still emerging about Andreas Lubitz, the 28-year-old Germanwings pilot and the possibly “deliberate” plane crash into the French Alps that killed 150 people onboard. In one sense, this is an example of an extremely rare occurrence, potentially one of just nine aircraft accidents determined to be caused by pilot suicide since the 1970s.
But, then again, the major themes of this story are those we’ve heard before: a young man who decides to kill not only himself, but also a number of other people, in a spectacular fashion. “It’s one thing to want to kill yourself,” said Michelle Cornette, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, “but what would motivate you to want to take 150 people with you?”
One thing to make clear up front is that this is not typical behavior of someone with depression or suicidal thoughts — Cornette said her organization estimates that just 2 to 5 percent of suicides are murder-suicides. “In true homicide-suicides, the primary intent or motive is suicide, and the homicide is secondary,” she said. This is the strongest shared characteristic, but other common themes emerge, too, said Adam Lankford, who has studied cases of mass murder-suicides and wrote about his findings in the 2013 book The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Shooters.
“In terms of mental illness, you can’t cite just one diagnosis — there are a lot of variations there,” Lankford said. Some are depressed, some have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and Eric Harris, one of the Columbine shooters, was deemed a psychopath by the FBI, he said. “But what I would say is that there are a few shared themes, but also some major differences, between people who just commit suicide and the people who are committing suicide along with these mass killings.”
Usually, these acts of mass violence happen because the killer feels victimized, oppressed, or bullied in some way, and so he (and it is almost always a he) feels that the attack is justified. Sometimes, this means the killer will target people he knows personally. “A high percent of those people are killing people they have a personal connection to — someone who’s killing their spouse and then killing themselves, for example,” Lankford said. “But in these other cases — school shootings, mall shootings, things like that — a lot of the people they’re killing are strangers.”
In the latter case, the strangers act as a stand-in for whatever group the killer feels has oppressed him. “So in this particular case, I think a natural question would be, for instance, is there any evidence of the pilot perceiving himself as a victim?” Lankford said. Sometimes, these perceptions are at least somewhat valid, and sometimes, they’re distorted and framed by mental illness and paranoia. “If he had reason to feel like he’d been mistreated by the airplane company, or had had negative interactions with passengers in the past, that would be a textbook explanation.” But the explanation may not be so straightforward; in some of these cases, the targeted strangers simply act as a kind of amorphous stand in for society at large.
Beyond the issue of feeling like a victim, some mass killers who then kill themselves are driven by the desire for fame — something not at all typical of suicidal ideation. “The Columbine killers, they talked about … whether Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino would direct a movie about their lives afterward,” Lankford said. “The Virginia Tech shooter, he filmed his own video and sent it to NBC News.” Incidentally, Cornette said, the media plays a role here. “When this is a motive, they usually get what they want,” she said.
A third common thread among mass killers who kill themselves: Sometimes, the attacker may want to minimize or disguise the fact that he wanted to take his own life. “It’s a pretty common thing around the world to be ashamed about committing suicide,” Lankford said. “So sometimes, with the case of mass murder, we see that the person who wants to commit suicide also wants to make it look like something else, so that the victims are part of that camouflage. … We see that a lot with suicide terrorism, in particular.”
Indeed, some of the mass shooters Lankford has studied have seemed more fixated on ending their own lives than killing anyone else. He mentions an incident at the University of Texas at Austin in 2010, when a 19-year-old math major fired just a few shots before quickly turning the gun on himself. “Sometimes, something that looks like a mass killing may be more like an act of suicide than homicide,” Lankford said. As inconceivable as it may be, the deaths of innocent and random strangers may, in these cases, almost be “incidental” in the killers’ minds.
Past instances of mass violence and suicide can tell us some things, but it’s still so early in the investigation that there’s not much to be said definitively about Lubitz and his intentions. “And at the end of the day, we may never know with certainty what really happened,” Cornette said.