Sein oder Nicht Sein. Das is hier die Frage—by Peter Eisenstadt

When you murder 149 people, and yourself as well, should this be considered suicide? If there have been more important news stories this week (Yemen, Iran, Syria, and Indianapolis) the story that has garnered the most attention is the horrific and deliberate crash of a Lufthansa jet in the French Alps by the plane’s co-pilot. I will confess to a grim fascination in following the story, in large part because of a family tragedy, suicide is a deeply personal and emotional subject for me.

Suicide remains the least discussed major cause of death in the United States, with annually, about twice as many deaths from suicide as from homicide. The vast, vast majority of suicides, over 97%, only involve self-murder, but unless someone is famous, the only types of suicide that make the news are so-called murder-suicides, like the Lufthansa incident. I have never liked the term “murder-suicide.” They are really just homicides in which the perpetrator is determined to suffer no consequences for his action (this is overwhelmingly a crime committed by males.) I don’t know what term could replace it, “homicide–self-murder” perhaps, but it is so unlike other suicides it deserves its own category. I can’t see how anyone could kill 149 strangers and condemn them to horrifying deaths without an all-consuming rage against others. Suicidal rage is typically only directed at oneself. I don’t know what to call what happened on the jetliner, but to me, it isn’t suicide, its just mass murder.

This to me is not just a matter of semantics, but is important in how we view suicide. My great fear is that in the aftermath of this episode the stigma attached to suicide and what psychologists call “suicidal ideation” will only increase, and the notion that those with suicidal thoughts are dangerous to others will only gain credence. Or that calls that persons with depressive episodes, or are on anti-depressives, be barred from certain occupations, or that psychologists or psychiatrists be required to report to employers all persons expressing “suicidal ideation.” This will only make those with suicidal thoughts more reluctant to speak or divulge such information. There are few things those with such thoughts fear more than the possibility of their freedom being curtailed or being stigmatized.

Suicide remains one of life’s greatest mysteries. Whenever someone kills themselves, the question that is always asked first is “why,” and it rarely has an adequate answer. Three-quarters of those who kill themselves do not leave notes, and so often, the notes, written at a time of maximum mental distress, are not revealing. There is no way to easily predict which people with suicidal thoughts will try or succeed in ending their lives, especially as many harboring such thoughts are clever at disguising and hiding them from everyone they know. Suicide is not predictable.

I guess the point I want to stress is that people who consider or act on suicidal thought are dangerous to themselves not to others. There is enough fear, awkward silence, and ignorance about suicide without seeing all suicides as potential murderers. We should not fear people who suffer from depressions, and should not stigmatize or limit the vocational possibilities for the millions of people who take anti-depressants. And it would seem to me that the actions of the Lufthansa pilot seem more congruent with sociopathic rage than suicidal depression.

It might not be fair, but this week I was thinking back to my college German classes, when we read part of the German translation of the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. My teacher assured us that Shakespeare reads better in German than in English. I don’t know about that, but “Sein oder Nicht Sein” certainly has a nice ring to it, and is even more compact and to the point than its English original. And indeed, “Das is hier die Frage.” But it is a question without an answer.