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Burned out. Narcissistic. A suicidal depressive with psychological problems.

German pilot Andreas Lubitz has been labelled many things since destroying a Germanwings Airbus and the lives of all on board in France last week. But one word the western media have not been using is ‘terrorist’.

Officials involved in the investigation seemed quick to distance the incident from terrorism. “There is nothing to suggest this was a terrorist act,” declared French prosecutor Brice Robin the morning following the crash. “He (Lubitz) does not have a terrorist background, said German Interior Minister, Thomas de Maiziere.

Had the circulated images of Lubitz not been of a white, seemingly well adjusted German marathon runner, and instead showed someone of Muslim or Arabic ethnicity—or, as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted, “Mohammed Al-Masaood, son of Egyptian immigrants”—one can’t help but wonder if the media’s treatment of Lubitz might have played out a little differently.

Al Jazeera’s Clayton Swisher certainly thought so:

Cue Mainstream Media Narrative: he’s not a terrorist because he’s not Arab or Muslim. No, he’s “disturbed” or “troubled.”

Quartz’s Annalisa Merelli argues that that speed at which investigators and the media ruled out terrorism highlights a strong Islamophobic bias affecting the Western world:

this tragedy appeared to lack what, since 9/11, has emerged to be considered the conditio sine qua non of terroristic attacks: the pilot was not Muslim.

It appears to be the trend. The possibility of a terrorist attack was leaped on by media outlets when Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared in March 2014— Muslim Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah’s alleged fanaticism as a political supporter of jailed Malaysia opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was frequently attributed as a factor in the plane’s disappearance.

Terrorism is a notoriously difficult thing to define. No single definition has gained universal acceptance and the classification of who is and who isn’t a terrorist remains highly subjective and highly political.

Locally, when Man Haron Monis held a Sydney café under siege last year, media agencies and politicians were quick to brand him a terrorist and not what he actually was: a disturbed criminal.

Last week, a reporter further demonstrated the media’s colours in a Lufthansa press conference when he prodded Lubitz’s religion and ethnicity. American academic and Middle East commentator, Juan Cole was there:

… we know why they asked. It was out of bigotry against Muslims, probing whether another one had gone postal. The subtext is that white Christians don’t go off the deep end, even though obviously they do…

Muslim scapegoating was rife throughout Norway and the international press before it was realised that Anders Breivik, a Christian fundamentalist, was responsible for the massacre of 77 people at a religious camp in 2011. Despite being extremely politically motivated, the media portrayed Breivik a ‘white supremacist’, a delusional ‘lone crusader’, scarcely a terrorist.

Bias aside, what distinguishes mass murder from an act of terrorism? Or, as Annette Guerry asked the Q&A panel this week: “is there a difference between a suicidal pilot and a suicide bomber? Should we consider the destruction of Germanwings Flight 9525 a terrorist act?

Terrorism is a notoriously difficult thing to define. No single definition has gained universal acceptance and the classification of who is and who isn’t a terrorist remains highly subjective and highly political.

…someone who purposefully brings 150 men, women and children to their death—signs of mental illness or not—has without doubt ventured beyond mere suicide

A common perception of terrorism implies violence driven by an ideological or political motive. No one will ever know exactly what drove Lubitz to plunge that plane into the French Alps. He was not affiliated with any known terrorist groups and left no indication that his actions should be considered political, religious or ideological. Some, like New York Daily Times’s Mike Lupica, think this is irrelevant:

It doesn’t matter to those who died and those they left behind whether this was politics or some cockeyed version of God or Allah or eternity or depression or Lubitz’s “burnout syndrome.” Once again a terrorist was at the controls of a commercial airline.

Lubitz’s ex-girlfriend told Bild newspaper that he talked of wanting to do something to “change the system”, something that “history would remember him by”, which perhaps inflected Orlando Sentinel’s Eugene Robinson’s take:

It looks as if Lubitz wasn’t just trying to end his life because he was depressed. He apparently decided to end 149 other lives as well because he wanted to tell us something. Tragically, this is precisely the kind of thing that terrorists do

Cole further added:

It isn’t political terrorism, likely, but certainly it was a terroristic act of killing.

As a white, educated German man Lubitz did not fit the western media’s prescribed go-to template for a terrorist. However, someone who purposefully brings 150 men, women and children to their death—signs of mental illness or not—has without doubt ventured beyond mere suicide to the point of committing an act of mass murder. Ultimately, the horror of what happened that day, as with all atrocity, defies any sense of semantic explanation.

What’s important here, as Zac Cheney-Rice reminds, is that we hold all who do commit such things to the same standards regardless of religion or race: “If one gets to be portrayed as a complex human being, they all should be portrayed as such”.

It’s impossible to know what went through Andreas Lubitz’s mind when he pushed the airbus into terminal decline. And while it might help paint a picture of a troubled man, blaming depression or any form of mental illness as the core reason for such an act is a grave simplification that works only to further stigmatise such conditions in the eyes of the community.

Was he a terrorist? A static definition remains elusive, though the one common thread in these variations, as Jake Flanagin puts, is that “an act of terrorism isn’t random; it makes a point”.

Lubitz may have been trying to tell us something. We’ll never really know if he had a point to make.