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Life Lessons from the German Air Disaster

Tuesday, Mar 31, 2015

It is far easier for an individual to do great evil than to do great good.

That the world isn’t fair is known to every human being who thinks. It may be our first insight into life. What child who ever complained, “That’s not fair,” wasn’t told by some adult, “Life isn’t fair”?

One sad example of how unfair life is concerns how much harder it is to do massive good than massive evil. One psychopath, in one hour, killed 149 innocent people aboard a Germanwings airliner. How many people will ever be able to do nearly as much good for 149 people in a lifetime?

With very few exceptions, good can only be achieved one by one by one. That’s why, if you want your name remembered by many people, you have a far better chance of accomplishing it by doing evil than by doing good. And that’s why most great evils are done by movements that want to change the world. If you really want to change the world for the better, work on making better people, not a better world.

Depression and lack of conscience aren’t the same.

We’ve heard repeatedly that Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz was being treated for depression — as if that largely explains why he did what he did.

Yet, every one of us knows one or two depressed individuals, and it is inconceivable that they would commit mass murder. As a number of Lincoln biographers have noted, most recently Richard Brookhiser, the great president was probably depressed all his life. And he was a moral giant.

Lubitz murdered 149 people because he was a narcissistic individual who lacked a properly functioning conscience. The number of people walking around in the world with a broken moral compass is quite large. Not all of them are depressed. And I am not only referring to violent Islamists. The U.N. just voted to condemn one country in the world for mistreatment of women: Israel. Are all those U.N. ambassadors depressed?

The 149 were ultimately killed by the 9/11 terrorists.

The pilot of the Germanwings plane could not get back into the cockpit because after 9/11, cockpit doors were made impregnable. That is how it should be. If anyone could get into a locked cockpit, terrorists would also be able to do so. For that reason, it can be said that the 149 passengers and crew were additional victims of 9/11.

The West takes truth seriously.

We take it for granted that Germanwings, the German government and the German people will fully acknowledge any findings, no matter how damning of one its pilots.

We shouldn’t. Acknowledging painful truths is not a universal value.

To this day, neither the Egyptian national airline, nor the Egyptian government, nor the Egyptian people acknowledge that it was the Egyptian first officer, Gameel Al-Batouti, who deliberately sent EgyptAir flight 990 into the ocean south of Massachusetts en route to Cairo on Oct. 31, 1999.

In many societies, the Arab world most particularly, saving face matters far more than truth. And where that is the case, social and moral progress is impossible.

It would be a sign of major progress in Egyptian life if, watching the German airline and German society acknowledge that a German deliberately crashed his plane into the Alps, Egyptians rethought their position on Al-Batouti and EgyptAir 990.

The damage Lubitz did is incalculable. 

This one man murdered 149 people. An ancient Hebrew saying is worth repeating here: He who destroys one life is considered to have destroyed the whole world. This is not mere hyperbole. Every one of us is an entire world. Read the stories of those on board Germanwings flight 9525, and this insight becomes all too clear.

But the damage is much more than that.

Lubitz not only killed all of these people. He thrust them into a state of terror the likes of which few humans ever experience. People with terminal illnesses know that they will soon die. But they have time to prepare for it. And, over that time, and given the illness, they eventually expect to die. There is, of course, great sadness, but there is no terror — certainly none in any way comparable to the terror on board the Germanwings flight. For at least five minutes, these people knew they were about to die. Out of nowhere. They had just boarded an airplane — one of modern society’s most routine and safest activities. And suddenly they were about to die. Add to that the terrified screaming of everyone else, and you realize what an almost unique hell these people — many traveling with a child or a spouse — went through.

Then there are the people who were not on this flight who loved the people who were. These people — parents, grandparents, siblings, children and, never forget, friends — will suffer this loss in varying degrees until they die.

And then there are the pilots of the world. I flew the day after the crash. Though I fly, on average, every week, on that day, I looked at the pilots at the airport a bit differently. It was not an intellectual reaction. But I have no doubt just about every passenger did the same.

Finally, there are Lubitz’s parents — arguably the most harmed people of all. Losing a child is the ultimate parental nightmare. But there is something much worse: when your child is a murderer. And even worse than that: a mass murderer.

As a parent, I can only imagine the pain of parents who lose a child. But nowhere in my imagination is there a place for a child who is a mass murderer.


This column was originally posted on

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