In the days since audio was extracted from the black box recorder of crashed Germanwings flight 4U9525 suggesting that copilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately downed the plane, investigators and journalists have rushed to find an explanation for his actions. Initially, many hypothesized about the possibility of an extremist religious or ideological motive. In his apparently lacking significant religious or ideological commitments, Lubitz is speculated to have been mentally unstable. A concealed health issue has been offered as a clue.
Thousands of words pile up in dozens of news sources to make up for Lubitz’s silence in the cockpit. The pounding on the door behind him and the screaming of the passengers just before impact are recognizably human; under such conditions, his steady breathing is anything but. How much more intelligible would this act seem if there were even a sigh, the sound of weeping, or a muttered imprecation. Instead, Lubitz is a blank, and we are left to struggle for an account of the contents of his mind in the moments leading up to the tragedy.
This blankness itself points to an explanation, albeit an unsatisfying one. Lubitz’s refusal to account for himself forces us to confront directly the nature of evil: blank, void, parasitic, and ultimately vacuous.
Finding a propositional motivation for mass murder would give the act a ghastly intelligibility. This would render it explicable according to human purposes, for all its horror. Terrorists have some end in mind that their bombs are intended to bring about. Recognizably human motivations and purposes allow possibilities for dealing with the resulting threats: appeasement, dialogue, therapy.
In the context of world events, when an anxious public is looking for reassurance that steps can be taken to prevent their own community members from killing one another, or from extremists planting bombs or kidnapping their loved ones, intelligibility has a palliating function. We can reinforce cockpit doors to prevent hijackers from taking the controls. We can screen pilots for mental illness. Under extreme circumstances, we can dispatch special forces or pay a ransom. There are options. We are not helpless.
There is a word that articulates Lubitz’s unintelligible act, one that leaves us without any recourse to planning and preemption. That word, of course, is “evil.” Evil is purely privative. It is by nature an absence, and it defies both reasons and meaning. If being itself is a good, then evil in its true form cannot have being. It subsists in destruction and disorder of created things, in bending and warping what is good by virtue of existing.
Evil, faced directly, is a rupture in the natural order. Evil is stupid and inarticulate; accounts and explanations fail to capture and bind it. Unbound, it exists as a constant threat, a void underneath the precarious constructions of reason and civilization.
We are horrified by Lubitz because for all our explanations, we cannot find a convincing motivation for what he did. The connective threads between depression and mass murder are worn to a point of nonexistence. There is an abyss separating our accounts and the action they are meant to describe.
If we could assign a motive to Lubitz, the gears of liberal social planning would engage to reduce the risk of such an event in the future: Pilots could be screened, safety features could be improved, computer technology could be developed to allow for remote control in the case of hijacking.
Without one, we are left with emptiness. There is a good chance that we will never arrive at a satisfactory account of what led Andreas Lubitz to throw 150 lives into oblivion. We can say all that we want about measures to reduce the likelihood of catastrophes like this in the future, but ultimately, the presence of evil in this world is a given, and no amount of planning or instrumental reasoning can rid us of its threat.
Martyn Wendell Jones received his B.A. from Wheaton College and his M.A. from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. He writes from the Chicago area.