Is It Appropriate To Call The Gemanwings Flight A ‘Suicide’ Or A ‘Mass Murder’ Or Both?

Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr said 'not in our worst nightmare would we imagine this happening'
Lufthansa chief Carsten Spohr

As sources reports about the crash of a Germanwings passenger jet and the deaths of all 150 people on board, one of the words editors at NPR are looking at is the word “suicide.”

Reports from multiple sources now claim that Lubitz, the 28-year-old German co-pilot, deliberately crashed Germanwings flight 9525 in the French Alps on Mar. 24, killing himself, 144 passengers, and five crew members.

According to Quartz, after Lubitz supposedly locked himself in the cockpit alone, he “manipulated the buttons of the flight monitoring system to activate the descent of the aircraft,” said French prosecutor Brice Robin announced at a Mar. 26 press conference. This apparently requires a conscious effort, which has led many to conclude that the pilot’s intention was suicide.

According to Robin, it appears that Lubitz “wanted to destroy the aircraft,” although a motive has yet to be identified.

“French Alps plane crash treated as suicide and mass murder by co-pilot,” according to EuroNews, on Mar. 26.

Websters New Word College Dictionary says that suicide is the act of “killing oneself intentionally.”

Merriam-Webster elaborates: suicide is “the act of killing yourself because you do not want to continue living.” That introduces the idea that the person’s state of mind and motivation are important.

According to NPR, it is not possible at this point — and may never be — to know what Lubitz was thinking.

Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr said this week that when someone is responsible for so many lives, “it’s more than suicide,” if Lubitz is to blame for their deaths.

“If a person kills himself and also 149 other people, another word should be used—not suicide,” he said in a statement on Mar. 26. Lufthansa owns Germanwings.

For now, as Weekend Edition Saturday‘s “Word Matters” conversation explores, NPR is avoiding the word “suicide” when characterizing what Lubitz is thought to have done.

On Morning Edition, Eleanor Beardsley simply used other action words:

– “Investigators are looking at … clues as to why [Andreas Lubitz] would take 149 people on board to their deaths with him.”

– Investigators told the co-pilot’s family “that their son had deliberately steered his passengers and crew to their deaths.”

In a Newscast, Dave Mattingly put it this way:

– “Investigators say [Andreas] Lubitz deliberately crashed a Germanwings Airbus into the French Alps. … They don’t know why.”

Quartz:  “If claims that Lubitz deliberately crashed are true, then we can still say that Germanwings flight 9525 was hijacked. We can say its passengers and crew were murdered. The decision to crash a plane carrying 150 people is categorically mass murder, after all—even if the person making that decision is mentally ill. But how we choose to talk about the event, the language we employ, may matter to the families of victims.”

There are a few reasons why NPR is being careful not to use the word suicide:

– Lubitz’ motivation and state of mind aren’t known (and may never be).

– The investigation into what happened is still in the early stages.

– There’s a case to be made that the word isn’t adequate.

Related notes:

– “Suicide bomber” is a phrase that’s become common usage. But keep in mind that the person with the bomb may have been forced or tricked into carrying out the act. If that appears to have been the case, “suicide bomber” is not accurate. Again, the better course is to simply describe what happened.

– “Committed suicide” is a sensitive phrase that some believe stigmatizes people. They make the case that you “commit” a crime or may be “committed” to an institution, but you do not commit suicide. “Killed himself” and “took her life” are among the alternatives.

“Apparently he had burnout, he was in depression,” reported the Daily Mail.

There’s more about NPR’s reasoning posted here.