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Trolleys come to Terror

[ by Charles Cameron — a western koan makes it onto German TV? ]

What Hala Jaber calls a supermarket trolley in this tweet is not what this post is about — but it sure does connect trolley and terror!


Here’s the terror side of things, in a tweet from John Horgan:

The BBC halls it an “interactive courtroom drama interactive courtroom drama centred on a fictional act of terror” and notes:

The public was asked to judge whether a military pilot who downs a hijacked passenger jet due to be crashed into a football stadium is guilty of murder.

Viewers in Germany, Switzerland and Austria gave their verdict online or by phone. The programme was also aired in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

The vast majority called for the pilot, Lars Koch, to be acquitted.

Here’s the setup:

In the fictional plot, militants from an al-Qaeda offshoot hijack a Lufthansa Airbus A320 with 164 people on board and aim to crash it into a stadium packed with 70,000 people during a football match between Germany and England.

“If I don’t shoot, tens of thousands will die,” German air force Major Lars Koch says as he flouts the orders of his superiors and takes aim at an engine of the plane.

The jet crashes into a field, killing everyone on board.

So, is the pilot guilty, or not guilty?


At the very least, he has our sympathy — but how does that play out in legal proceedings?

What’s so fascinating here is the pilot’s dilemma, which resembles nothing so much as a zen koan.

Except for the Trolley Problem:

Image from Wikimedia by McGeddon under license CC-BY-SA-4.0


Substitute an Airbus for the trolley, 164 people for the lone individual on the trolley line, and 70,000 people for the cluster of five — and the pilot for the guy who can make a decision and switch the tracks.

There you have it: terror plot and trolley problem running in parallel.

To be honest, I think the full hour-plus movie is far more immersive, to use a term from game design, than the Trolley Problem stated verbally as a problem in logic — meaning that the viewer is in some sense projected, catapulted into the fighter-pilot’s hot seat — in his cockpit, facing a high speed, high risk emergency, and in court, on trial for murder.

It’s my guess that more people would vote for the deaths of 164 under this scenario than for the death of one in the case of the trolley — but that’s a guess.


The German film scenario — adapted from a play by Ferdinand von Schirach — is indeed a courtroom drama, a “case” in the sense of “case law”. And it’s suggestive that koans, too, are considered “cases” in a similar vein. Here, for instance, is a classic definition of koans :

Kung-an may be compared to the case records of the public law court. Kung, or “public”, is the single track followed by all sages and worthy men alike, the highest principle which serves as a road for the whole world. An, or “records”, are the orthodox writings which record what the sages and worthy men regard as principles [..]

This principle accords with the spiritual source, tallies with the mysterious meaning, destroys birth-and-death, and transcends the passions. It cannot be understood by logic; it cannot be transmitted in words; it cannot be explained in writing; it cannot be measured by reason. It is like a poisoned drum that kills all who hear it, or like a great fire that consumes all who come near it. [..]

The so-called venerable masters of Zen are the chief officials of the public law courts of the monastic community, as it were, and their collections of sayings are the case records of points that have been vigorously advocated.


Relevant texts:

  • John Daido Loori, Sitting with Koans
  • John Daido Loori, The True Dharma Eye
  • 3 Responses to “Trolleys come to Terror”

    1. Graham Says:

      I would expect that, regardless of the ultimate judgment of the pilot’s actions, his superiors’ who gave him the order not to fire could in some circumstances also be required to account for themselves at court martial. If that decision came from the uppermost political authority, then I would say the senior officers are off the hook but a parliamentary debate would be in order to clear the air and hear out opposing views on the government’s decision.
      On the trolley problem, I was struck by your tentative assessment that more people would support shooting down the plane full of 164 people than would endorse the death of one in the classic trolley problem? Any interest in unpacking that? I have found that a sort of stripped down utilitarianism has a fairly strong hold on the moral senses of North America these days. Confronting the trolley problem most of us, me very much included, are inclined to challenge the rules/look for alternatives/step outside the paradigm/cheat [whichever term you think is most accurate]. We all want to be James T Kirk and beat the now-win Kobayashi Maru scenario. But when those options are systematically taken away and we confront the problem as presented, how many choose to not sacrifice the smaller number, and why?

    2. Charles Cameron Says:

      Hi Graham:
      It may be that everyone chooses to sacrifice the smaller number in both cases, I don’t know. But to unpack my tentative assessment, I wasn’t thinking in terms of the difference between the two sets of numbers, just of the difference between a somewhat abstract, almost puzzle-like problem, and a vivid scenario presented with all the bells and whistles of modern day cinematography. If there are any people who don’t see both situations the same way, it would (to my way of thinking) surely be because the text problem activated a different set of brain functions from those activated by the visualo presentation — no doubt with some overlap, but different in their activation of emotional circuits, I suspect.

    3. Graham Says:

      I found your neurological take on that also interesting. That could be so. It would be interesting to see if the trolley problem were presented to people as a real scenario with the same degree of production value, would it then be handled by most in the same way as the German play?

      I recently read that this play has been presented in Japan, where the audience on all occasions voted the pilot guilty by significant margins. I contemplated some of the considerations. I did not think Japanese society [stereotype alert] would be as troubled by the collectivist decision to save the greater number by sacrificing the smaller, assuming without evidence that the Japanese might find this troubling but ultimately more culturally sympatico than Westerners of any stripe.

      I wondered if it was something as clear cut as the different lessons of 1945. The Germans certainly learned an adjusted approach to the value of life, but they also had the role of individual conscience drummed into them hard, and/or were firmly taught to pck up again those strands of their own culture. Probably every German who served in the old conscript army of the Bundeswehr and many others would have heard of the teaching of innere fuhrung, and put the pilot’s actions in that context. His exercise of conscience would carry much weight even in a court martial.

      The Japanese lessons may have included a new role for the personal conscience, but perhaps not so much as the question of life and the seriousness of the decision to take it and the communal responsibility for that decision. And the Americans probably drummed into them the importance of the soldier being willing to resist an unlawful order, but not with the emphasis on conscience as in GErmany, or the Japanese just took it a different way. They may, therefore, vote guilty because the pilot disobeyed a lawful order and by doing so cost the greater number of lives.

      Pure intellectual woolgathering on my part, but when I saw that national distinction, that’s as far as my thinking on it got.

      Cards on the table- as 45 year old Canadian steeped in Anglo assumptions about the world, I concluded the pilot was both right to have made that choice and guilty. Guilty of disobeying lawful orders and, by acting without lawful orders, of the multiple counts of murder. Still right and a hero even if to some a villain. One of the harder moral positions to be in.

      Of course I’d want the officers at his ops room and the ministers directing them dismissed for opting to sacrifice the stadium, and punished if a mechanism could be found. They failed in their own duties.

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