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Terrorism or mental illness? Why race matters

When co-pilot Andreas Lubitz crashed the Germanwings plane, killing 149 people, “mental illness” was deployed as an explanation. If he wore a turban and had a beard, and if I were a betting man, I would put my money on the media labelling him a terrorist. Where would you put your money? Be honest.

Have you ever read a complex mental health assessment of an Arab/Muslim person committing a suicide-homicide? I doubt it. The media assumes it to be terrorism; a reflection of an entire religion; and mental illness is never used to “understand” the person. Due to unbending stereotypes, Muslims are pressurised to answer on behalf of these violent outliers and convince an unforgiving public that their religion does not deliberately incite violence.

What do Hansie Cronje, Bill Clinton, Lance Armstrong, Oscar Pistorius, even old Cecil John Rhodes all have in common? They have all been given the benefit of the doubt, despite their scandalous history. Is it because they’re men? Is it because they’re white? Is it both?

Race-police, pause. Journalistic watchdog The Race Matters Institute reminds us that

“it is not uncommon for seemingly ‘non-racial’ stories to have important racial dimensions [and] compared to coverage received by whites, practices and stereotypes within the news media work against people of colour … and over-reports whites as victims”.

The science supports this
The media has a double standard and is racially and culturally biased.

– In a 2007 study commissioned by London mayor Ken Livingstone, 91% of news coverage portrayed Muslims negatively — in just one week.
– David Niven’s 2002 book Tilt? The Search for Media Bias clearly shows that US media is biased, mainly on race and gender, and that trust in journalists actually ranks lower than lawyers!
– Chris Greer, a sociologist, argued that being presented as a victim in the news is influenced by social divisions including class, race, ethnicity, gender, age and sexuality, along a hierarchy of victimisation.
– Pauline Brennan & Abby Vandenberg’s review of the Los Angeles Times and New York Times concluded “that stories about white female offenders were more likely to contain excuses for their alleged or actual offences and were, therefore, more likely to take on an overall favourable tone than stories about minority female offenders”.
– In an equally shocking experiment, Michelle Eddy & Stephanie Sandor proved that participants were more likely to judge a rape victim as actually wanting sex if the perpetrator had a lighter skin tone compared to if the perpetrator had a darker skin tone. Even in these gross violations of human rights, lighter skinned men were offered greater leniency.
– A 2012 Stanford University experiment led by psychologist Aneeta Rattan concluded that “if people imagine a juvenile offender to be black, they are more willing to hand down harsher sentences to all juveniles … the fact that imagining a particular target could influence your perceptions of a policy that would affect an entire class of people, we think, is pretty important”.

When Lance Armstrong fell of his golden bicycle, USA Today ran a poll “Give Lance a second chance?” In SA, the Independent on Saturday read “South Africans salute disgraced US cyclist” and City Press ran “Lance Armstrong cheated but … ” on its website. This subtle appeal to forgive and understand creeps into a discourse of sympathy for white perpetrators who are seen as exceptions to the norm, and I’ve written about elsewhere.

In the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, the majority of opposition to the statue’s removal has used the argument that we must appreciate all the good that Rhodes has done and the mainstream media has gone the predictable route of trying to “understand Rhodes in context”. It is unlikely, if Jacob Zuma or Robert Mugabe was being vilified in the media that those very same newspapers would try to “understand” these two complex characters. Similarly, despite its best intentions, the TRC epitomised the social reluctance to punish white wrongdoers. Using the motifs of forgiveness, reconciliation and compassion, perpetrators became victims of their time or victims of a cruel system where good people had to do bad things.

Xolela Mangcu has argued that a “racialised mobilisation of sympathy” is a frequent quality of white discourse. This rallying cry of solidarity, to forgive or understand, is seen in events of white transgression such as Hansie Cronje being caught for match-fixing. Initially vilified in the media, he was rehabilitated as a repentant hero of national cricket, especially after his death. The same leniency is not offered by white citizens to black perpetrators. Mangcu argues that this is consistent with punitive, long-held stereotypes of black incompetence and the need to punish black people:

“Too often executioners are able to mobilise public sympathy by hogging media conferences, and calling an amazing array of sophisticated diversions and metaphors … before we know it, a reversal of roles has taken place … the original perpetrator has become the victim.”

When brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi killed 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, the New York Times described them as “two jihadists [who] gave a global audience a ruthless demonstration in terrorism”. When Lubitz deliberately killed himself and 149 passengers his actions were blamed on mental illness. Matt Peppe’s excellent online analysis on this issue is worth reading. This is a bitter pill to swallow but here it is: even terrorists benefit from white privilege.

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A version of this article was originally published in Rapport on April 5 2015.


  • Suntosh Pillay works as a clinical psychologist in a public hospital in Durban. He is a PhD researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and has written extensively on a range of topics in various media. He is grappling with social dilemmas and paradoxes that we are faced with every day & hopes to trigger debate, controversy, reflection and connection via his writings. He is past chair of the Board of Directors of the Mandela Rhodes Community and is part of various national committees of the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA). Suntosh Pillay on ResearchGate To chat, network, or collaborate, email [email protected] Twitter: @suntoshpillay


  1. Jake Nudelman Jake Nudelman 7 April 2015

    Interesting read.

    I agree that mainstream media and its readers are quick to judge characters based on their race but most of what you say here is just not true.

    You give many examples of whites being forgiven for their bad decisions but do not contrast it with any stories of unfair judgments of people who are not white. That’s ironic given your disgust with media bias and truth bending. Even the examples you give do not support your case. Pistorius and Rhodes have been judged harshly by the media and have certainly not been forgiven. White society may be divided on the Rhodes issue but most opinion pieces in South Africa’s better publications have been siding with the #RhodesMustFall cause.

    As for the statistic that 91% of news coverage paints Islam with a negative brush, anyone could guess that without a study being conducted. Any story about Islamist extremism portrays Muslims negatively because the Muslims responsible did something bad. So any news on an Islamist terror attack will fall into this category. That doesn’t indicate any bias against Islam. It indicates a bias against Islamist extremism.

    And your suggestion that Lubitz was let off the hook because of his whiteness is untrue and a little silly. There have been investigations into any possible involvement in terror organisations. They came up empty. He is known to have suffered from severe depression. That isn’t made up. Where I agree with you is that had he been Muslim, people would have assumed he was a terrorist and then only later have discovered that he wasn’t. Well, guess what? Many people initially assumed the same about Lubitz (this is evident in the media’s initial fascination with Lubitz’s back story and any possibility of terrorist activity). The reason Lubitz was let off the hook was because he actually wasn’t a terrorist.

    To be honest, I’m not actually sure what you’re saying here. Do you want the Kouachi brothers to be forgiven for killing 12 people and Lubitz to be called a terrorist?

  2. rick baker rick baker 7 April 2015

    What you fail to mention of course is that the Moslem guide to life, ie the Koran, contains imperatives to kill infidels, those committing apostacy, adultery etc. While moderate and peaceful Moslems know all about these, they choose to ignore them. The radical fundamentalists who need religious justification for extreme antisocial behaviour have no difficulty in defending and rationalising their actions in terms of those imperatives. The Christian Bible is not much different if applied literally although its followers do not generally seem to share the same limelight as their Moslem counterparts and do not indulge in suicidal attacks in the name of their religion. It is not clear yet whether religion played any part in Andries Lubitz’s behaviour.
    In an ideal world all religious texts should be modernised to remove all possible imperatives and inscriptions that have the potential to be used as justification to harm other humans. Wishfull thinking unfortunately!

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