BERLIN — In the case of Andreas Lubitz — the seemingly unstable co-pilot who crashed a German jetliner into a French mountainside last week — it is almost as if this nation is reluctant to ask itself what went wrong.
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.
It is not unusual to hear Germans express some sympathy for the personal torment Lubitz may have grappled with. Social media here, meanwhile, is on fire with Germans saying enough is enough with the details. Lubitz, many argue, was a disturbed man who could not have been stopped by anyone, case closed.
“Why is everybody going on about this crash?” Di Ma, the Facebook name of a former employee at the Burger King in Montabaur, Germany, where Lubitz once worked, wrote on the social media site. “There’s nothing more to know. The guy was sick.”
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.”
Part of the challenge is an unusually powerful cultural faith in the value of predictability and rules, which many here tend to assume were imposed after serious consideration and should be strictly respected. It is not uncommon to see German pedestrians wait for green lights at crosswalks even when there is no traffic. Neighbors chide each other for failing to separate the recycling from the trash.
There are, in fact, calls to review some aspects of medical privacy laws that may have helped Lubitz hide his psychological problems from aviation authorities. Yet few — from journalists to politicians to cleaners to pundits — are calling for a broad reexamination. And above all, many Germans seem to want the whole issue to go away.
“The problem is you,” the owner of a dry cleaner shop near Lubitz’s Düsseldorf apartment told a reporter. “These people just want attention,” she said, suggesting that if there were copycat crimes, it would be the media’s fault.
Rather than chasing every angle, many media outlets here seem to be acting as the guardians of cherished privacy — a notion that is strong here in part due to the prying eyes of the state during the Nazi and Cold War eras.
Many German journalists have had an anguished approach to their coverage. Standing outside Lubitz’s three-story apartment building in springtime drizzle the other day, two local reporters were earnestly discussing whether to walk up the path to Lubitz’s front door to look at the names on the doorbell. They decided against it, reasoning that it was an invasion of his neighbors’ privacy.
“I would put the respect for privacy higher than widow shaking,” said Ines Pohl, editor and chief of Die Tageszeitung, using the German term for pursuing family and friends in a news story.
Monday’s Rheinische Post, a major regional newspaper, published a now-iconic photograph of Lubitz in front of the Golden Gate Bridge — with his face blurred out. And Der Spiegel — the weekly news magazine that is a standard-bearer of German journalism — assured its readers that it would not publish photos of grieving families of victims if they did not volunteer themselves for media attention. “We respect your privacy,” Spiegel’s editors wrote.
Many outlets have acted like Die Welt, a paper owned by the same publisher as Bild but that maintains a more careful editorial line. Ulf Poschardt, deputy editor in chief of Die Welt, said his paper had obtained a now widely printed photo of Lubitz running a marathon and opted not to publish it. The paper continues to name him as only “Andreas L.”
“We don’t understand what value the publication of the full name has that outweighs his personal rights,” Poschardt said. “We also made sure that the facade of his house was not recognizable to protect the personal rights of the family.”
Tuesday’s admission by the Lufthansa airline that it had been aware of a previous bout of depression suffered by Lubitz — after categorically stating otherwise last week — provoked a smattering of critical comments across German social media. But it seemed to disturb relatively few. On Wednesday, there remained no serious clamor for accountability at the company seen as a standard for efficient German industry. Lufthansa’s chief executive visited the crash site in France on Wednesday, but he offered no new details about his company’s knowledge of the pilot’s mental health problems.
Many here contend that the plane crash exposed only one thing: the failings of one potentially deranged man.
“You cannot avoid such incidents. You can be more cautious, of course, and you can be more sensitive about such diseases and personal behaviors,” said Annegret Bendiek, an expert on European Union security policy at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “But in general, this does not justify a general security debate about it.”
Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.