German Word of the Week: Weichtierkundler
Am deutschen Wesen, or German Smoothiemakers Show Us the Way

Respect our Privacy, say Germans About Germans

The Washington Post writes an article about Germans' odd protectiveness of Andreas Lubitz: 

Had the crash happened in the United States, pundits might be screaming for the heads of the psychiatrists who did not ground Lubitz, or furiously condemning the rules and company procedures that allowed the troubled 27-year-old to step into the cockpit of Flight 9525. But at least by American standards, many Germans are expressing neither a strong sense of moral outrage nor a clamor to point the finger of blame.

The reason may lie in the sense that the crash is suddenly challenging some of the fundamental tenets of German life: that its titans of industry do not make mistakes. That well-thought-out rules — including those severely limiting the sharing of medical data — are things to be trusted in and strictly enforced. That in a country where Edward Snowden is nothing less than a folk hero, personal privacy must trump all else.

In fact, the strongest debate to emerge here since the crash so far is whether the foreign press and more aggressive domestic outlets are rushing to judge Lubitz before all the facts are known. A variety of voices here say that Lubitz, even in death, deserves a measure of privacy, as does his family. And if he is guilty, some say, it may be due to mental illness, and thus he should not be judged as harshly as, say, a suicide bomber.


Many German publications quickly printed the names of the Muslim assailants in January’s terror attacks in and around Paris. Yet even though prosecutors have publicly named Lubitz and evidence suggests he deliberately crashed the plane, a number of respected German media outlets have still refused to print his full name or photo. They argue that the extent of his guilt is still not clear and that their readers are demanding greater sensitivity because Lubitz is German and his story is unfolding on home turf.

The domestic outlets that are aggressively reporting the story, like the tabloid Bild, have suffered withering criticism.

“Germans often shy away from certain realities — realities of war, realities of violence,” said Kai Diekmann, Bild’s editor in chief, responding to the criticism aimed at his paper. “I think much of this debate has to do with a refusal to face realities.”

I understand that reflexive Bild-bashing is the hallowed shibboleth of the educated bourgeoisie in German society, but Diekmann has a point here. Generally, I find the tendency of Germany to respect privacy and avoid snap judgments admirable. Perhaps the most important thing a politician can say to the public is that there is no such thing as 100% security, and that the government will never be able to prevent all accidents.

But there is more than a whiff of hypocrisy and ethnic tribalism about the German response to Lubitz. The German press immediately reported the full names, pictures, and all the details of the lives of the Charlie Hebdo attackers. If you think that had nothing to do with the fact that they were not German -- and especially, the fact that they were not of Northern European ancestry -- I have a bridge I'd like to sell you.

So let's examine the potential distinctions between Lubitz's case. True, he was not a terrorist in the conventional sense, since he doesn't seem to have had any broad political demands and didn't want to intimidate society in general. However, if his ex-girlfriend is to be believed, he boasted that he was going to do something spectacular that would 'change the way things worked' and that everyone would know his name. 

Germans seem to want to treat this crime as a private family tragedy, such as when a man kills his ex-wife and children. In that sort of event, with no public-policy implications, I agree that discretion should be the preserved. But this is the equivalent of walking into the Cologne Cathedral and murdering 149 people with a bomb or weapon. In that case, would anybody seriously argue that his right to privacy must be respected?

And in fact what Lubitz did is even more worthy of full investigation and open public debate, since it involves a major public-policy issue that affects everyone. The system for screening airline pilots is of urgent concern to anyone who may fly in an airplane in the coming year, which is just about all of us. Making sure that system works well enough to prevent another such tragedy is much more important than protecting the privacy of a corpse, or even of Lubitz's relatives and friends. It's not fair that they should receive such scrutiny, but Lubitz was the one who put them there, and we, the flying public, have a right to know every fact relevant to preventing a recurrence of such an act.