From The Nazis To Nice, Teasing Out The Logic Of Evil

Terrorists and mass murderers are often seen as maniacs. But that may hide an uncomfortable truth: You don’t have to be insane to commit atrocities.

Nice killer Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel
Nice killer Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel
Joachim Käppner


"They're insane."

"Only a total lunatic, a psychopath, would do such a thing."

"How sick is that?"

"You've really got to be crazy."

You hear sentences like these on a daily basis, from friends and colleagues, in newspapers and on TV. Internet forums are full of them. It's common knowledge, after what happened in Nice, Würzburg, Munich, Ansbach â€" these very different, but all highly disconcerting crimes â€" that the Tunisian guy with the truck, the boy with the axe, the person running amok with the gun and the guy with the backpack full of explosives all must have mental issues.

But how does this categorization help? Not at all, according to forensic experts. "Of course, it's a common colloquialism to call the guy who blows himself up in the middle of a crowd insane," says one German psychiatry professor. "In that sense, the Nazis were crazy, too. But from a clinical and legal point of view, this pathologizing doesn’t work at all."

Calling these offenders crazy is a natural thing to do: the pathologization of their crimes is an attempt to make some kind of sense from the incomprehensible. Naturally, it also blurs the culprit's image, involuntarily relieving person of responsibility. Thinking that someone who commits such a horrible crime must be mentally ill, and therefore considering the crime itself proof of the offender’s mental incapacity, is as old as criminality itself. It’s the strategy employed by lawyers everyday to save their clients from conviction.

In those attributions of insanity, which are often false, one can see society's degree of preconceptions concerning mental illness. If someone’s "somehow strange," sad or disturbed, full of hate, he or she might conceivably lose it at some point. Some commentators don’t hesitate to openly draw connections between depression and going berserk.

The consequence of such opinions is the stigmatization of those who are truly ill. And it’s unclear whether the depression David S. in Munich was treated for eventually led to his rampage. Experts know that depression usually leads to withdrawal, listlessness, torpidity and suicide rather than deadly aggression towards others.

"It’s highly unlikely that the culprit’s depression is the reason for his act in Munich," noted Ulrich Hegerl, a chair of the German Foundation for Depression Relief.

But such distinctions are blurry. At the Würzburg Clinic and Polyclinic for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy, professor Marcel Romanos sees a dangerous trend of "continuously equating mental illness with sociopathy and being a danger to the public." Doing so is absurd considering that in Germany, one in three people suffers from a mental illness at some point, but most never become dangerous.

On the other hand, in his book Social Anxiety Disorder, fear researcher Borwin Bandelow observes that "many terrorists are the result of their paranoid personality disorder." He also differentiates among narcissistic, antisocial and paranoid terrorists. The narcissists want to go down in history as heroes; the antisocial hide their pleasure in killing behind ideology; and the paranoid feel persecuted by the world. Bandelow further explains that a terrorist with a borderline personality could become a dangerous suicide attacker out of impulsivity.

Reproachful conclusions

All of this obviously does not explain how strong a personality disorder is and to what extent it can be held responsible for a specific attack. The greater the disorder, the lesser the perpetrator's responsibility. The case of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik shows how delicate using the scales truly is, even for experts.

The first expert opinion in 2011 declared Breivik paranoid, schizophrenic and certifiably insane during the attack. A second opinion claimed he indeed suffered from a narcissistic and antisocial personality disorder, but said he was not mentally ill to an extent that would justify what he had done. Breivik went to court and was convicted.

Youth psychiatrist Romanos notes that such cases are extremely rare. "Only a few mental disorders lead to exemption from criminal responsibility," he says. Psychiatrists estimate that nearly half of Germany's inmates are mentally ill. Some prisoners suffer from personality disorders with an obvious lack in empathy; others are violent criminals with antisocial traits. And yet all are criminally liable. Otherwise they’d be in an asylum, not in prison.

That's what’s so problematic about stereotyped thinking when it comes to mental illness. Every time the public finds out that a criminal like David S. in Munich had been undergoing psychological treatment, critics quickly come to reproachful conclusions: Why didn’t anybody notice anything? How could they let him go free?

Germany’s major youth psychiatric facilities treat thousands of patients each year, about one tenth of whom are hospitalized. Some obviously have violent tendencies. But if you tried to lock away in a psychiatric institution anyone who might one day become a threat â€" a move that is, incidentally, out of step with the times â€" there would be no room for all the patients. If there's only the slightest doubt about the propensity of certain individuals for violence, the same critics often claim, then you’re locking them away unscrupulously, treating them like dangerous maniacs.

The theory of mental illness as a cause of terrorism further misjudges the influence of social structures and peers. Without trying to compare the incomparable, the Nazis’ killing was, to the victims of that time, nothing more than what today’s Islamic terror is to us: a series of incomprehensible atrocities, committed by people who clearly live in a psychic universe that shuns all rules of morality, sanity and peaceful cohabitation.

The degree of brutality that is required for a human being to beat Jewish children to death or kill dozens of innocent people with a truck, as happened in Nice, is hard to bear, as is the carnage in civil wars all over the world. The so-called evil isn’t a medical category.

Paradoxically, calling the culprits "maniacs" has backward consequences. It makes the guilty not legally responsible. Today’s terror doesn’t work that way, and neither did the racial fanaticism of the Nazis. Their devastating racial madness was, of course, delusional. When in 1941 the Nazis killed 33,000 Jewish civilians, they were following a construct of ideas that was completely detached from reality. And young people who learn about the crimes of the past ask the same questions when faced with the horrifying acts that have shocked the Western world recently: How can people do such things? How sick do you have to be?

The answer is disconcerting: Not sick at all. You don’t have to be mentally ill to commit horrible crimes. Ideology makes people do things the rest of the world considers delusional. According to the system the doer is in, the person's behavior is normal, even heroic. That's why suicide attackers take as many people as possible with them. According to their logic, this is the best way to head for paradise. In the mass-murder dynamic of the Nazis, people who killed thousands of Jews proved themselves "decent human beings," in the words of Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler.

Psychiatrist Romanos has recently witnessed a whole different form of mental suffering in Würzburg. Many unaccompanied young refugees have been hospitalized because they are at risk for suicide. "These are traumatized young people other teenagers now accuse of being sleepers and terrorists," he says. "And that kind of psychological strain has become almost unbearable for them."

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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