My continuing series about my mothers struggle with Alzheimer’s turns the tables on me, the cartoonist, her son. Looking back now, I can see that many of the things that she did that drove me crazy were really early warning signs of the disease. Now that I know what’s going on, I am able to be patient. Why wasn’t I before?
Investigators are still putting together the pieces, but from what we know so far, it’s likely that 27-year-old German co-pilot Andreas Lubitz committed mass murder-suicide when he flew a Germanwings passenger jet carrying 149 passengers and fellow crewmen into the French Alps.
Authorities say they haven’t found a suicide note, but it’s a safe bet that Lubitz’s final act was prompted by depression (they found the meds), diminished vision, a deteriorating romantic relationship and his worry that the Lufthansa subsidiary would ground him if they found out about his problems, crashing a career he loved and blowing up his livelihood.
Though rare, pilot suicide isn’t unheard of. As long as the current system remains in place, it will happen again.
By “system,” I’m referring both to specific rules issued by the FAA and other countries’ aviation authorities to regulate pilots, and to that most coldhearted of socioeconomic systems, you’re-on-your-own capitalism.
“Before they are licensed, pilots must undergo a medical exam, conducted by a doctor trained and certified by the aviation agency,” explains The New York Times. Some airlines impose additional screening procedures, but they vary from company to company. Active pilots are required to have a medical screening once a year until they turn 40 and then twice a year after. Only when pilots are found to have mental health problems are they sent to a psychiatrist or psychologist for evaluation or treatment.”
At first glance, an incident like the Germanwings disaster seems to call for increased physical and mental monitoring. But leaning harder on pilots would only fix half the problem.
The current system is punitive – thus it encourages lying.
“But the system, Dr. [Warren] Silberman [a former manager of aerospace medical certification for the FAA] and others said, leaves pilots on an honor system, albeit one reinforced by penalties to discourage them from concealing any health issues that could affect their fitness to fly, including mental illness. Pilots who falsify information or lie about their health face fines that can reach $250,000, according to the FAA.”
Imagine yourself in that position. Knowing that public safety is at risk, you might do the right thing and step forward after your psychiatrist tells you that you shouldn’t be working, as happened to Lubitz. Then again, you might not.
First of all, you might doubt the diagnosis. That’s the thing about mental illness – victims’ judgment can be impaired. For example, there is evidence that Ronald Reagan suffered from early signs of dementia while serving as president. If true, that’s scary – but was the Gipper aware he was fading?
Second, you might think you could handle it, that with the help of psychiatric treatment and antidepressant medications, you could push through what might turn out to be a temporary crisis. Why risk everything over a passing phase?
Third, and this is likely, you might keep your problems to yourself because to do otherwise would ruin your life – or at least feel like it. At bare minimum, it would end your career, forcing you to start from zero. For many people, that seems too horrible to bear. In our society, social status is determined by our careers.
“The stigma [of having a mental illness] is enormous,” Dr. William Hurt Sledge, professor of psychiatry at Yale who has consulted for the FAA, the Air Line Pilots Association and major airlines, told the Times. “And of course, none of them wants that to be known, nor do they want to confess it or believe that they have it.”
And for those who decide to ignore the stigma, what comes next? Where’s the safety net, professional, social and economic, for people who run into trouble, whether of their own making or not?
At the root of Lubitz’s decision to kill himself – whether he gave much thought to the 149 people on the other side of the reinforced cockpit door cannot be known – is that he lived, as we all do in the Western world, in a disposable society. Lose what you do and you lose what you are. The bills keep coming long after the paychecks stop; soon you have nothing left.
I could throw a dart at any daily newspaper to illustrate this point; today it would probably land on the results of an AARP survey that found – unsurprisingly to anyone over age 50 – that a single layoff after that age has devastating, long-term consequences. People over 50 are overwhelmingly more likely to wind up classified among the long-term unemployed and typically wind up earning less if and when they find a new job, often starting again from scratch in a new industry because their experience was in a line of work that no longer has openings.
I imagine a system in which people like Andreas Lubitz don’t need to see a psychological or other setback as the end of their world.
What if he could have confided in his bosses without fear? What if Lufthansa policy was to stand by him through his treatment, guaranteeing him a respectable job at equivalent salary – for as long as it took for him to get better? And if he couldn’t recover, what if he knew that his country’s government would provide for him financially and otherwise? Finally, what if no one cared what he did for a living, and it was just as prestigious and remunerative to work as a file clerk as to fly a plane?
I’m not sure, but I bet 150 people would be alive today.
(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
COPYRIGHT 2015 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM
As I waited for the body of a man who jumped in front of my train to be cleared from the tracks — less than a week before another train I was riding struck a suicide victim — it occurred to me that (a) I should check whether suicide rates are increasing due to the bad economy (they are, especially among men in their 50s), and that (b) talking about suicide is long overdue.
With modernity comes depression; depression sometimes leads to suicide. And it’s a global phenomenon. “The World Health Organization reports that suicide rates have increased 60 percent over the past 50 years, most strikingly in the developing world, and that by 2020 depression will be the second most prevalent medical condition in the world,” T.M. Luhrmann wrote in The New York Times recently.
Why are so many people opting out?
Can we eliminate or reduce the number of our brothers and sisters who kill themselves?
Disclosure: my best friend committed suicide when we were 15. Bill’s death, and his inability/unwillingness to find a reason to keep living among his friends and family, left me angry and confused, unable to process an unsolvable equation. No day passes without me thinking about Bill hanging himself. His death makes me question my own daily decisions to go on living. I am not in touch with anyone else who knew him, but I imagine their trauma was not wildly dissimilar from mine.
So, yeah, it’s a personal issue for me. Given that 30,000 Americans commit suicide and 800,000 attempt it every year, it’s personal for 5,000,000 survivors of close friends and relatives too.
Nobody talks about it, but suicide is a national epidemic. Suicide by gun kills more Americans — a lot more Americans — than gun violence committed against others. (Though research shows that having a gun in your house greatly increases the chance that you’ll shoot yourself.) More American soldiers have killed themselves than have died in the war against Afghanistan.
Perhaps public discussion is inhibited by the cultural myth of the rugged individual, personal responsibility, etc. — hey, it’s your choice to live or die — but we’re all in this together. We need to save as many people as we can.
One way to reduce the suicide rate would be to get rid of capitalism. Though not a truly communist state, citizens of the Soviet Union were far less likely to kill themselves before the collapse of socialism in 1991.
There is a relentless tendency toward monopoly, consolidation of wealth and rising inequality under capitalism. Inequality — specifically, awareness of inequality — kills.
Studies show that relative poverty — how much poorer you are than your societal peers — is strongly correlated to mental illness, including depression. Of course, you can find a study to support just about anything; there’s even a theory that country music prompts people to kill themselves. Still, as Lurhmann says: “We know that social position affects both when you die and how sick you get: The higher your social position, the healthier you are. It turns out that your sense of relative social rank — literally, where you draw a line on an abstract ladder to show where you are with respect to others — predicts many health outcomes, including depression, sometimes even more powerfully than your objective socioeconomic status alone.”
Being poor doesn’t bum people out. Being poorer than other people — people whose relative wealth you personally witness — does. Mali, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are poor countries. Yet their rates of inequality are low, similar to those of Germany and the Scandinavian countries. And so are their suicide rates.
“Overall life expectancy also tracks with inequality, with a bigger wage gap meaning shorter lives and worse health — for both rich and poor, though the poor are hit much harder,” Maia Szalavitz wrote in a much-cited 2011 Time magazine article. “Researchers suspect that this gradient is linked to stress caused by our place in the social hierarchy: Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky, for example, has found that even in baboons, lower ranked animals have higher levels of stress hormones and worse health. But when status conflicts are reduced, producing a more egalitarian situation, these differences are also reduced.”
In a famous 2003 experiment with monkeys, the animals refused to accept small food allotments than those offered to neighboring monkeys. They became angry at the researchers, throwing objects at them — apparently because they blamed them for unequal distribution of the treats.
Those monkeys were on to something. Better to turn our rage against those responsible for inequality than against ourselves.
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COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM
Time to Roll Back Excessive Prison Sentences
If you’re looking for sympathy, it helps to be white, male and media-savvy. Throw in charm and brains—especially if your smarts tend toward the tech geek variety—and your online petitions will soon collect more petitions than campaigns against kitten cancer.
These advantages weren’t enough to save Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old “technology wunderkind” who hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment on January 11. But they did elevate his suicide from that of a mere “data crusader,” as The New York Times put it, to “a cause” driven by millennial “information wants to be free” bloggers and sympathetic writers (whose corporate media overlords would go broke if people like Swartz got their way).
Swartz, who helped invent RSS feeds as a teenager and cofounded the link-posting social networking site Reddit, was a militant believer in online libertarianism, the idea that everything—data, cultural products like books and movies, news—ought to be available online for free. Sometimes he hacked into databases of copyrighted material—to make a point, not a profit. Though Swartz reportedly battled depression, the trigger that pushed him to string himself up was apparently his 2011 arrest for breaking into M.I.T.’s computer system.
Swartz set up a laptop in a utility closet and downloaded 4.8 million scholarly papers from a database called JSTOR. He intended to post them online to protest the service’s 10 cent per page fee because he felt knowledge should be available to everyone. For free.
JSTOR declined to prosecute, but M.I.T. was weasely, so a federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz of Boston, filed charges. “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away,” she told the media at the time.
Basically, I agree. As someone who earns a living by selling rights to reprint copyrighted intellectual property, I’ve seen the move from print to digital slash my income while disseminating my work more widely than ever. Info wants to be free is fine in theory, but then who pays writers, cartoonists, authors and musicians?
I also have a problem with the selective sympathy at play here. Where are the outraged blog posts and front-page New York Times pieces personalizing the deaths of Pakistanis murdered by U.S. drone strikes? Where’s the soul-searching and calls for payback against the officials who keep 166 innocent men locked up in Guantánamo? What if Swartz were black and rude and stealing digitized movies?
But what matters is the big picture. There is no doubt that, in the broader sense, Swartz’s suicide was, in his family’s words, “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach”—a system that ought to be changed for everyone, not just loveable Ivy League nerds.
Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines. The charges were wire fraud, computer fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer.
Thirty-five years! For stealing data!
The average rapist serves between five and six years.
The average first-degree murderer does 16.
And no one seriously thinks Swartz was trying to make money—as in, you know, commit fraud.
No wonder people are comparing DA Ortiz to Javert, the heartless and relentless prosecutor in Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.”
As Swartz’s lawyer no doubt told him, larding on charges is standard prosecutorial practice in everything from traffic stops to genocide. The idea is to give the DA some items to give away during plea negotiations. For defendants, however, this practice amounts to legal state terrorism. It can push psychologically delicate souls like Swartz over the edge. It should stop.
It also undermines respect for the law. As a young man I got arrested (and, thanks to a canny street lawyer, off the hook) for, essentially, riding in the same car as a pothead. Among the charges: “Not driving with a valid Massachusetts drivers license.” (Mine was from New York.) “Don’t worry,” the cop helpfully informed me, “they’ll drop that.” So why put it on? Neither the legalistic BS nor the missing cash from my wallet when I got out of jail increased my admiration for this morally bankrupt system.
The really big issue, however, is sentencing. The Times’ Noam Cohen says “perhaps a punishment for trespassing would have been warranted.” Whatever the charge, no one should go to prison for any crime that causes no physical harm to a human being or animal.
Something about computer hackers makes courts go nuts. The U.S. leader of the LulzSec hacking group was threatened with a 124-year sentence. No doubt, “Hollywood Hacker” Christopher Chaney, who hacked into the email accounts of Scarlett Johansson and Christina Aguilera and stole nude photos of the stars so he could post them online, is a creep. Big time. But 10 years in prison, as a federal judge in Los Angeles sentenced him? Insanely excessive. Community service, sure. A fine, no problem. Parole restrictions, on his Internet use for example, make sense.
Sentences issued by American courts are wayyyy too long, which is why the U.S. has more people behind bars in toto and per capita than any other country. Even the toughest tough-on-crime SOB would shake his head at the 45-year sentence handed to a purse snatcher in Texas last year. But even “typical” sentences are excessive.
I won’t deny feeling relieved when the burglar who broke into my Manhattan apartment went away for eight years—it wasn’t his first time at the rodeo—but if you think about it objectively, it’s a ridiculous sentence. A month or two is plenty long. (Ask anyone who has done time.)
You know what would make me feel safe? A rehabilitation program that educated and provided jobs for guys like my burglar. Whether his term was too long or just right, those eight years came to an end—and he wound up back on the street, less employable and more corrupted than before. And don’t get me started about prison conditions.
A serious national discussion about out-of-control prosecutors and crazy long sentences is long overdue. I hope Aaron Swartz’s death marks a turning point.
COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL
All over the world, and now here in the United States with the so-called “fiscal cliff” accounting crisis, ordinary people are being told that they must tighten their belts. Why? In order to pay the bills of wealthy elite individuals and corporations that enjoyed almost all of the profits of the boom times and indeed are continuing to live lavishly today.