Out of the Blue: Mass Murder in the Skies

Originally published in The Baffler on March 30, 2015.

Andreas Lubitz, the 27-year old German copilot who flew a jetliner into a mountain in the French Alps last week, seemed normal, according to preliminary reports of his character and personality. Sure, Lubitz had worries—his girlfriend was pregnant; he was having difficulty with his vision; he was taking antidepressants. But he gave no advance sign that these ordinary facts would lead him to commit mass murder. He was normal, until he was not. What happened to him? “Investigators and journalists continue to search for clues from every period and corner of his life,” sums up the New York Times. The mental autopsy offers the rest of us the reassuring illusion that, with enough hard evidence and dogged empirical analysis, we can apprehend the mind of the suicidal killer.

I noticed a throwaway detail amid the many and ongoing attempts to reconstruct Lubitz’s state of mind: His ex-girlfriend told a German newspaper that he suffered from nightmares. He would wake up screaming that his plane was going down. That anxiety in this form would disturb the sleep of a young pilot is hardly surprising, of course. But consider two more details. Lubitz crashed the plane in the same area of the Alps where he flew gliders as a teenager. And a voice recorder is said to capture him breathing steadily in the final moments. Given his psychosomatic problems, the symbolism of the location he chose, and his calm in the face of death, one wonders whether Lubitz felt he was carrying out a prophetic dream.

Such a proposition is virtually inadmissible within the framework of mental health drawn by the professional classes in Europe and the United States. In public life, we use dream language metaphorically, as in “Andreas Lubitz was the boy who grew up dreaming of flying and of one day becoming a pilot.” Less often pointed out, though, is that Western culture has largely abandoned the ancient science of dream interpretation, and what remains of dissenting thought has no truck with what Theodor Adorno called “the melancholy science” of alienation. Our failure of imagination is a telltale sign of our stagnation. The grand ambition of figures such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung—to translate the universal experience of dreaming into therapeutic self-understanding—has been replaced by the instrument-guided, precision explorations of neuroscience. That’s why we know so much more about the workings of a technologically sophisticated jetliner than about the mind of the normal person copiloting it.

Look closely, though, and you’ll often find dream residue invigilating the consciousness of the mass murderer, revealing clues to hidden grudges and quietly prefiguring the process of de-personalization and self-estrangement. “3rd zombie apocalypse dream in a span of like 2 weeks, i’m no golden boy but maybe, just maybe we should be expecting something soon, tbc.” That’s a tweet from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—who, like Andreas Lubitz, suffered from psychosomatic ailments—about nine months before he and his brother allegedly bombed the Boston Marathon. In the weeks preceding the attack, he added: “I killed Abe Lincoln during my 2 hour nap #intensedream.”

Jared Lee Loughner, the 22-year old Arizona man who shot U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords in a supermarket parking lot in 2011 and killed six bystanders, is another case in point. “My favorite activity is conscience [sic] dreaming,” Loughner wrote. Dreaming was “the greatest inspiration for my political business information. Some of you don’t dream—sadly.” Two months before his killing spree, Loughner told a tattoo artist that he dreamed 14 or 15 hours every day and swore he could control the experience. As with Lubitz, Loughner might have felt that he was floating inside the actual deed. Bill Badger, the recently deceased citizen who helped subdue Loughner, remembers that “his body turned out to be light and almost fragile, and he crumpled immediately, offering no resistance.”

In 2000, Al Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui told a friend in Malaysia he’d been having dreams in which he flew a plane into a tall building. Moussaoui went to see Osama bin Laden, who was known to employ a dream interpreter at Al Qaeda’s Sudan headquarters. “He told me, ‘Good.’ Remember your dream.” Mohammed Atta, who piloted American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, circulated dream reports of the jihadis as tokens of solidarity. Marwan al-Shehdi, Atta’s fellow hijacker, was reported to have “had a beautiful dream that he was flying high in the sky surrounded by green birds not from our world, and that he was crashing into things, and that he felt so happy.”

Official responses to such death-dealing malignancy have a way of resolving the problem into neat categories—the jihadis are savages, the Jared Lee Loughners’ are “paranoid schizophrenics.” And eventually, no doubt, the mental health professionals will give us a suitably exotic label in pilot psychology to explain Andreas Lubitz (something more precise than “severe subjective burnout syndrome,” one hopes). But why stop the inquiries with one man’s diagnosis? The monsters, all too often, are just the alienated representatives of the rest of us.