A Tragic Reversal: An Iconic Image Tarnished

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On Tuesday morning of March 24, a Germanwings flight crashed into the French Alps, killing all 150 souls on board. Within minutes, the news rapidly circulated around the world via the media. Then, crushingly, the allegations began to leak out that it was actually the co-pilot who deliberately crashed the airplane, news that shocked and devastated the international airline community. Moreover, it angered most of the air traveling public. How, they wondered, could this have happened?

In a tragic reversal of the old iconic image of the heroic pilot, a solid and dependable source of safety for passengers under his/her protection, a Germanwings co-pilot allegedly and inexplicably became the source of destruction.

This traumatic incident will forever change how the flying public perceives the airline industry, and it will take some time to sort out its psychological effects. Similar to 9/11, I predict that it will trigger traumatic personal reactions worldwide.

As a former Pan Am flight attendant for 20 years, and then a psychotherapist/psychoanalyst for almost 30, I've worked often with traumatized airline personnel. Most notably, I worked with many flight attendants and pilots in the tragic aftermath of 9/11, as well as with Pan Am employees after the terrorist attack on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

I've written many times about this new Age of Trauma that we as a global society seem to be experiencing. In a world that feels increasingly chaotic and unsafe, I have often quoted Dr. Robert Stolorow's book, Trauma and Human Existence (Routlege, 2007) to help us better understand the nature and roots of trauma.

For example, just how are those members of the flying public who have a pre-existing fear of flying -- or some other type of traumatic history -- supposed to surrender their sense of control to pilots who actually have the deadliest weapon of all: They can just press a button and crash a plane? Like it or not, this horrifying image of a homicidal pilot is now indelibly etched in the collective psyche.

Because we are all finite beings over whom death and loss constantly loom, we humans develop what Stolorow calls "absolutisms of everyday life." This means we all develop unquestioned beliefs and assumptions that we unconsciously live by, in order to flee from the uncertainties of life and to maintain a sense of continuity, predictability and safety.

For instance, when you say to a loved one, "I'll see you tomorrow," it's taken for granted that both you and the other person are going to be around. Stolorow writes, "It is in the essence of emotional trauma that it shatters these absolutisms, a catastrophic loss of innocence that permanently alters one's sense of being-in-the world" (p.16).

A powerful example of this shattering was the emotional reactions we all experienced following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. America was confronted with its vulnerability and lost its sense of grandiose invincibility. The terrorist attack on Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, as well as the fall of Pan Am itself in 1991, had a similarly traumatic effect on its work force. Now another absolutism that has just been forever changed is that all pilots will do everything within their power to provide a safe trip for passengers.

When we can no longer believe in such "absolutisms of everyday life," many of us feel that the universe has been revealed to be unpredictable, chaotic, and unsafe. It's especially traumatizing when this loss of innocence echoes some painful incident that might have happened to us in childhood.

Often traumatized people see life differently than others do. They feel anxious, alienated, and estranged in an unsafe world in which anything can happen at any time. Anxiety slips into panic when it has to be borne in isolation; hence, it's essential that there be a place where painful feelings can be verbalized, understood, and held. Without this relational home, emotional pain can become a source of unbearable shame and self-loathing. As a result, traumatized people can fall into the grip of an impossible requirement to "get over it."

As with the horrors of 9/11 and Pan Am 103, the most terrifying part is the intentionality of the perpetrators. Airplane crashes as the result of mechanical failure, weather, pilot error, and even terrorism come from without, whereas with the Germanwings disaster, the killer resided within.

What makes matters worse is that following the latest disclosures, no one will be able to imagine that the passengers were unaware that something was terribly wrong. There's always consolation that comes from knowing that loved ones were unaware of their impending doom. As with Pan Am 103 and especially 9/11, many people become preoccupied with images of just what the passengers and airline employees knew, felt, and experienced in those terrifying last moments of life. It's a painful process, especially for loved ones -- to which employees of Pan Am, American Airlines, and United Airlines can attest -- and it's essential that these feelings be shared.

To the employees of Lufthansa/Germanwings, I'm afraid that you will be in shock and mourning for a very long time. I hope that opportunities for therapy will be provided for those of you suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After 9/11, I wrote a blog for American Airlines flight attendants that can perhaps be helpful to you and those of the flying public who are feeling fearful.

Traditionally, airline employees have considered themselves to be "family," and the knowledge that one of your own could betray you and inflict incalculable damage to your company has to feel overwhelming. As when a family member causes great distress, feelings of shame can easily accompany and greatly exacerbate depression. And, unbelievably, employees will eventually have to endure shaming verbal attacks from aggressively angry passengers who refer to this tragedy in order to take their frustrations out on you. It's a very disappointing aspect of human behavior.

This kind of devastating catastrophic event will certainly add to the feeling of uncertainty and danger in the world. Moreover, it unfairly tarnishes the image of pilots who are dedicated and trustworthy caretakers of the people whose lives they hold in their hands.