MH370: Suicide or Spoof? Part 1 — Psychology


MH370 Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah: the face of a mass murderer?

It’s an exciting time for those of us who are trying to crack the riddle of MH370. By establishing that the plane did not wind up where an autopilot-only flight would have taken it, the Australian-led search effort has dramatically reduced the number of possible scenarios. In effect, only two remain: first, that one of the pilots (most likely Zaharie) took control of the plane and steered into the southern ocean on a suicide mission; and second, that sophisticated hijackers commandeered the plane from the E/E bay and tampered with the Satellite Data Unit so the plane only appeared to be flying south, when in fact it was flying in some other direction.

Given the scarcity of data in the case, how can we discriminate between the two possibilities? In the next few blog posts, I’d like to look at the case from a number of different angles. Today, I’d like to start by looking at the psychological aspects of the case. What do the actions of the perpetrators reveal about their psychology? Does Zaharie fit the profile of a mass murderer?

As has been noted here many times before, during the initial phase of the disappearance, whoever took MH370 seems to have been motivated primarily by the desire to evade and deceive. Electronics were turned off six seconds after the plane passed the last waypoint in Malaysian airspace, during the narrow window between saying goodbye to Malaysian air traffic controllers and saying hello to Vietnamese controllers. Its disappearance from secondary radar led searchers initially to look for the plane in the South China Sea. Only later did the Malaysian military find a radar track showing that the plane had turned 180 degrees and headed west, hugging the Thai/Malaysian airspace boundary before dashing across the Malay Peninsula and disappearing again over the Andaman Sea. The search was therefore moved there. Only later still did Inmarsat reveal that signals its satellite received suggested that the plane had flown south for six hours. These signals were received only because the satellite data unit had been turned back on again—a procedure that most airline pilots don’t know how to do. Thus, the plane didn’t just disappear once, but three times.

Wondering whether this kind of elaborate planning was common among people bent on suicide, I reached out to Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University who has written 54 books, including Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers. Below is an edited condensation of our conversation.

JW: Are there cases where suicidal people develop very ornate and elaborate plans?

KR: There are definitely people who create elaborate plans. There was one woman who was an engineer, and she created her own chainsaw guillotine with a remote control. She measured everything out, bought the materials, and built it. It was really elaborate. And it worked.

JW: The thing about MH370, of course, isn’t just that it was so elaborate, but that it took so long. Now we understand that, if Zaharie did commit suicide, he not only spent six hours flying into the remote ocean, but then proceeded to hold the plane in a glide after fuel exhaustion to prolong the process. Are there cases where people commit suicide in such a way that it’s as protracted as possible?

KR: I don’t know about that. Why would you? Why would anybody do that? You could make the argument that he was hoping that the passengers would survive it, but if that’s the case just go commit suicide, and don’t do it with other people.

JW: Would you say that prolonging is the opposite of what most people who commit suicide want?

KR: If you wanna do it, you want to get it over with. It’s not the experience of dying that you want. Now let’s really go to the absurd. Yes, there are people who really want the experience of dying—they are ‘death collectors.’ There was one guy, a serial killer named Peter Kürten, who had a fetish for blood. When he killed his victims he’d hit them so that the blood would spurt out and he’d catch it in his mouth. When he was finally going to be executed by guillotine he said, “I hope I experience that, because imagine the blood flow!” To him, the ultimate thing would be actually experiencing his own death.

JW: Could Zaharie have been that kind of person, a death collector?

KR: Obviously these are people with serious problems. I think people would have noticed that this guy had a death fetish, if that’s what he was trying to do. There would be signals.

JW: There have been cases in the past of pilots crashing their planes into the ground and killing all their passengers, most notably Germanwings 9525 last March. But in that case there was a lot of evidence that he was under a lot of pressure and had a long history of psychological issues. That’s not the case with MH370. Malaysia investigators have said specifically there was no evidence of suicidal intention. People might not trust Malaysian officials, but none of Zaharie’s friends or family have said they saw troubling signs, either, like they did in the Germanwings case.

KR: Usually, there’s something that people notice. It’s one thing if you were single, but the Malaysia pilot had people around him, coworkers, family. They’d notice something different. He wouldn’t necessarily leak his decision or his planning, but there would be something different. To do something like this without anybody noticing anything would be really hard to do.

JW: In the case of Germanwings and every other pilot suicide that we know about, the pilot descended into the ground and got it over with quickly.

KR: If somebody’s going to commit suicide, they’ll just go do it. If the media is to be believed, the Germanwings pilot had clearly made a statement to people about being famous, and that fits the profile of a mass murder-coercive suicide. But because there’s no evidence of that here, I think it’s just too big of a leap to say, “This is suicide.” So many things are against it.

JW: Would you go so far as to say Zaharie couldn’t have been responsible?

KR: I’m not going to rule out the possibility because there will always be rare instances of things that surprise us. Human beings are strange creatures.