According to what is claimed to be the cockpit voice recording, the pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 told his co-pilot, “Du kannst übernehmen” (You can take over) as he left for the toilet.
Based on what we have been told so far, it’s easy to speculate about a still young man who felt increasingly out-of-control choosing to exercise deadly control where and when he could. Perceived and prospective failure prompts a volatile combination of denial and over-compensation.
Compensation is a classic defense mechanism, one of eleven first identified by Sigmund Freud and his daughter. For the Freuds — Anna added considerably to her father’s original work — a defense mechanism is a psychological device for resolving conflict between the Id and Super-Ego: between instinctual or self-absorbed desire and more other-involved reason and restraint.
Freud describes the id:
It is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality, what little we know of it we have learned from our study of the Dreamwork and of the construction of neurotic symptoms, and most of that is of a negative character and can be described only as a contrast to the ego. We approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations… It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle. (New Introductory Lectures)
Super-ego is a translation of Freud’s Über-Ich (over-I, beyond-me, transcendent-self). It is the creation of family and society, an accretion of human experience translated into habit, moral principles, and ethical systems. There are evolutionary foundations for our cognitive dispositions in this regard, but the specifics are taught and learned and practiced (or not).
There have always been sociopaths who indulge the id. There have often been self-organizing groups that reject or warp received social norms. Violence is a recurring expression of their pathology.
In 1915 the world’s population was about 1.8 billion. Today’s population is roughly 7.2 billion. Might sociopaths now be three-times more likely?
In 1915 the global population was predominantly rural, even the United States was (just barely) still a majority rural nation. Since 1950 the global balance has fallen from 70 percent rural to under half. Since 2008 — for the first time in human history — a majority live in cities. Given current trends, 70 percent of the world population is expected to be urban by 2050.
Urban life tends to empower easier individuality. In most cultures, urbanization challenges the institutions that transfer — and enforce — super-egoistic content. Does urbanization multiply various forms of id-iocy?
Even if urban areas can be as effective as traditional rural societies in suppressing the id, the concentration of population in dense urban environments creates fatter targets, modern communications and transportation facilitates easier targeting, and contemporary tools of violence are more virulent than those of any prior age. Modern media casts its magnifying lens. So just a few id-dominant personalities can have amplified effect.
The dialectic of what the Freuds label id and super-ego arose in the earliest human communities. For most of human history repression of the id has been a principal purpose and task of culture. Behavioral variation — good or bad — has encountered social skepticism and, often, negative sanction. This persists. But especially among third and fourth generation inhabitants of burgeoning cities, traditional ties are fraying and failing.
As an eccentric individual, I am glad to live in a time and place where I encounter less push-back than my trouble-making ancestors. But I sometimes wonder if the shift from a social to individual center-of-gravity has become unsustainable. In some cases I worry that culture has forsaken its role in building solidarity, becoming instead a self-subverting seedbed of variability.
Most of us are, at best, co-pilots. With sustained effort we claim a semblance of secondary or collaborative control over some well-defined corner of our reality. All the rest is flux. What do we make of the flux? Is it frightening? Or are we fulfilled in racing its rapids? Are we lonely paddle boarders or part of a large team of rafters?
Have we been taught — more importantly, have we learned — the values of self-restraint and other-regard?
German is too complicated for me. But I am told the prefix or preposition über — as in über-ich and übernehmen — is not necessarily about control. Depending on the word to which it is attached we might hear transcendence or overcoming or elevation. On the Germanwings plane the co-pilot evidently chose to demonstrate his mastery over the machine. He also demonstrated an absence-of-mastery over himself.
Treating symptoms is helpful, especially if there is no cure for the underlying disease. Perhaps homeland security must be satisfied with noble work analogous to hospice care. We mitigate pain as we await the inevitable.
But if we hope to advance a cure, this will arise less from our reflex to übernehmen and emerge much more from our cultivation of über-ich.