Features Australia

The silence of evil

Hardened cockpit doors and ‘depression’ are more comforting to our modern minds

11 April 2015

9:00 AM

11 April 2015

9:00 AM

‘…….   ……     …..’

That is a direct quote. Verbatim. The last words of Germanwings flight 9525 copilot Andreas Lubitz. Silence. Although, it’s not all silence on the plane’s black box voice recorder. Muffled screams can be heard. And banging on the cockpit door, presumably even attempts to break it down. There’s a noise that experts believe to be the plane’s first impact with the terrain. And then the flatline of nothing – no signal, no recording – as the Airbus A320 crashed into the side of the Tête du Travers, 100 kms northwest of Nice in France.

A video recording that has now been retrieved from the passenger cabin gives a very different picture. It’s one of chaos and terror of almost Biblical proportions. The screams are anything but muffled. We hear the cries – in English, German, French, Spanish – of the blasphemers and the pious: ‘My God, my God.’ No doubt some were thinking, praying the very next words of Jesus on the cross, ‘why have you forsaken me?’

The relatively quiet cockpit, it seems, was a haven of peace for those last few minutes of the life of First Officer Lubitz. And for the media, investigators, aviation authorities, and no doubt for grieving friends and relatives, that is a big problem. The silence concerns us. It worries us. It repulses us. Perhaps if Lubitz’s last words had been Allahu Akbar we would at least have an explanation – unsatisfying, obviously, but these days, tragically, all too familiar. Even if he had shouted suicidal allegiance to Baptist extremism, or philately, or the Rotary Club, or if he had had an audibly schizophrenic episode, the psychologists and psychiatrists could have categorised it, and given it a name, and we would have been no less confused, but at least there’d be some explanation. But he didn’t. And there isn’t.


This in no way stops the talking heads in the media – especially those with psychology and psychiatry qualifications – from sharing their thoughts. As if to make up for Lubitz’s silence, they have been endlessly speculating as to what may have been going through his mind in the final minutes as he manoeuvred the plane into a descent, increased its speed, and deliberately, quietly, and calmly, drove it into a mountain. One psychologist on an American show said with uncharacteristic candour, ‘I have absolutely no clue why he did it, or what he may have been thinking.’ So you’re just like the rest of us then.

There is one possibility that hasn’t really been discussed: the possibility of evil. I don’t mean that the word hasn’t appeared, because it’s a favourite among politicians and those same talking heads (‘…this evil act,’ etc). But its actual meaning isn’t taken seriously.

And why should it be? When is it ever? When is the problem of evil recognized or referred to other than in the most peripheral or rhetorical way? To take evil seriously would mean putting less trust in psychoanalyses, in police and military solutions, in the politics of community building, in hardened cockpit doors, and in the civil aviation pronouncements now being made to mitigate against those doors. Such solutions provide us comfort, they help us sleep at night. Unless the problem is that of evil.

Even when we do attribute evil as a cause or characteristic of, say, the Islamic State (and can there be anything more evil than a ‘death cult’?), we don’t really mean it. The notion that the problem of an evil regime can be solved by more or better military power, or by confiscating passports, is a philosophical and moral fiction. Likewise, the suggestion that mere depression can account for Lubitz’s actions would be laughable apart from 150 tragedies at the Tête du Travers.

Lubitz’s utter silence renders every other explanation as foolish speculation. Evil, as unsatisfying and unimaginably horrible as it is, is not just the best answer; it is the only answer. However, it is almost taboo in a world that ignores it, preferring instead clinical problems with medical answers, or criminal problems with counter-terrorism solutions.

I will never forget looking up at the magnificent fresco on the ceiling of Florence Cathedral. The Last Judgment is a massive work covering many theological themes, but in one corner I spied with horror demons consuming, and then defecating, small children. While hardly biblically accurate, such pictures allowed medieval Catholics to imagine evil – no, the demons weren’t clinically depressed – and to allow that it has consequences. Not so for us clever moderns. We have so enlightened ourselves that we are left longing to hear something – anything – from the Germanwings co-pilot. In a world that thinks it’s devoid of evil, an audible moan or whimper or gasp would be almost as satisfying as if Lubitz had left a multi-page manifesto open on his kitchen table. But I am not sure even the uncomfortableness we feel at the destruction of 150 lives will make us think honestly about the silence of evil.

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