A few weeks ago, Michel Bacos passed away at age ninety-four. It got some media attention, but not more than a few small obituaries and twitter references. I briefly mentioned it, but this week a video snippet of his funeral service appeared online and it prompted me to write about the man and his actions in a bit more detail.
Bacos had a colourful life. French, but born in Egypt, he fought during World War II and went on to become a pilot for Air France. In that capacity Bacos found himself as the captain of the ill-fated Flight 139, which on June 27, 1976, was scheduled to fly from Tel Aviv to Paris with a short stop over in Athens. There, a gang of German and Palestinian terrorists boarded and hijacked the plane and directed it to first Benghazi in Libya and eventually to Entebbe in Uganda. The plot thickened there. It turned out the hijackers were getting strong support from then Uganda dictator Idi Amin. Over the course of a few days the pressure was turned up as the terrorists sought not only a dollar ransom, but the release of a large number of Palestinian terrorists imprisoned in Israel. It put the government of then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in a very difficult spot given its stance on non-negotiation with terrorists and the long distance to Uganda made any rescue attempt next to impossible.
After only a few days, the crisis worsened as the Israeli and Jewish passengers were forcibly separated from the rest of the travellers, resulting in scenes reminiscent of the Holocaust. Not long thereafter, the non-Israeli contingent was released. At that point captain Bacos and his crew were given the option by the terrorists to leave too, but Bacos did not even consider it for a second and opted to stay with his passengers. He did give that option to his crew, all of who unanimously agreed to stay on. Given the likelihood of a very bloody ending to the affair, an extremely brave and commendable move and one that would put Bacos in the history books. The captain himself did not think that much of it when he commented later:
“There was no way we were going to leave – we were staying with the passengers to the end,” he said. “This was a matter of conscience, professionalism and morality"
After all diplomatic efforts had been exhausted, the Israeli government launched one of the most daring rescue operations ever, liberating the hostages and crew, killing all of the hostage takers as well as destroying a significant portion of the Ugandan air force. During the operation three hostages were killed, as was one of the Israeli commandos, Yoni Nethanyahu, the older brother of the current prime minister. One passenger, Dora Bloch, who had been evacuated to a hospital prior to the rescue mission was subsequently murdered by Amin's security forces.
Bacos was honoured across the globe and his resumed work as captain not long after the drama, insisting his first flight back on the job would be to Israel. His heroism and the natural way in which he assumed full responsibility for his passengers under the most adverse circumstances are of course deeply commendable. It made him a hero and an example how to keep the moral high ground, even in a situation where you may not get out alive.
But at a deeper level there is more to the move Bacos made. What he did was essentially what most Europeans failed to do during the Second World War. Taking a stance and doing the right thing when ordinary Jewish citizens are being singled out for death just because of who they are was exactly what was lacking in most of Europe. And it was exactly that which contributed to the death of six million Jews. Bacos must have sensed his actions had a far deeper meaning beyond just acting morally during a plane hijack. He may never have found the right way to express it, but if you see the short video of his funeral you sense what is going on. You see French flags, a priest, some French veterans, but you hear a national anthem that is not French at all. The anthem was played at Bacos’ own special request and it is the one national anthem that expresses hope. The hope.
How the financial crisis continues to claim lives
Last weekend, Dutch banker Jan Peter Schmittmann murdered his mentally handicapped daughter, his wife and subsequently, himself. Family tragedies like this are unfortunately not all that unusual, the media takes note and the world tends to move on after a few days of debate and analysis. This case however has just too many aspects to it to just pen it down to the ubiquitous ‘deep depression’ and stress references and forget about it. The reasons to look further into this are manifold. Schmittmann not only pretty much had it all – even after his forced early retirement – he also is part of a steady trend of financial crisis related deaths, one of his close colleagues from the same bank took his own life only a few years ago. But also being Dutch and a former banker myself and knowing some of the people that knew and worked with Schmittmann ensured that I could not get this out of my head quickly and had to start probing into the drama a bit more.
First the facts. Schmittmann, aged fifty-seven, had enjoyed a rapid career at the largest Dutch bank, ABN-AMRO, but never landed one of the top jobs, a case of visible frustration for the ambitious man according to some press reports. When his career did eventually peak it coincided not with big success but with high drama. ABN-AMRO was acquired by a conglomerate not of senior management’s choice and not long after that the financial crisis resulted in the domestic arm of the bank being nationalized by Dutch government, a process that included a fairly public dismissal of Schmittmann. The latter event focused on the golden handshake, which ended up being much lower than what Schmittmann had initially bargained for. Still, the approximately $11 million was splattered across Dutch media as a sign of how financiers created a mess and then accessed public funds to gently exit with a nice cheque. Schmittmann must have looked at this very differently. With 14 years to go to retirement, the care of a handicapped child, the sum, or whatever what was left of it after taxes, was probably not the princely amount that some had interpreted it to be. Good enough to live on comfortably for sure, as a banker Schmittmann probably ran his numbers, but at fifty-one his career and his chance to hit the proverbial big time were pretty much gone.
Therein lie two other crucial aspects of a banking career. Not only is it a career that is financially rewarding, it more importantly provided very high social status and access to all levels of society, in particular the ones higher up the chain. Having gone through a similar bank training program, having seen the wave of turbocharged liquidity in an ever globalizing world I can confirm that it was not exactly rocket science to participate in the upswing and derive the necessary benefits from it. But, the money is only a small part of the story. The status conferred on international bankers, even after the financial crisis, is quite phenomenal. To this date I leverage my years in that world to the fullest and they provide a welcoming ticket to many deals, contracts and contacts. But rather than let others make the call, I picked the timing of my own exit years ago and was young enough to reinvent myself, maybe because subconsciously I sensed the high potential of the role to be an unfulfilling one in the long run. Schmittmann had progressed beyond the point of no return and presumably had less of a hand in his eventual career exit. Bankers are not all that well prepared for a post-career world, certainly not one that ended as dismally as it did Schmittmann’s. It must have been a devastating experience for him and quite possibly triggered some latent potential for depression in the man. It is not a stretch to argue that it terminated not only his career, but also the notion he had of himself at a point where it was too late in the game to reassess and more importantly, reconstruct himself.
We can only make assumptions on the marital stress he may have endured or the difficulties posed in his relationship with and care for his mentally handicapped younger daughter who was twenty-two at the time of her death. He may have been on medications; he may have used other means to regulate his mood swings, some financial or other mishap may have occurred, who knows. We can only speculate. But coming down from a high status and easy access to power role to a forced to ‘reinvent yourself in your fifties’ scenario most likely set the stage for what tragically unfolded in his house last weekend.
His downward journey in all likelihood compounded or unleashed potential stress factors in Schmittmann’s personal life that as time moved on proved to be too much for him. We can only be deeply saddened and fathom at what prompts a man to kill his wife and daughter and probably never gather his final thoughts and motivations at that point in time. His final text message to a friend asking to take care of his older daughter raises as many questions as it answers.
So far the family has been quiet and the press has probed with some tentative explanations, none of which are particularly insightful. Time will hopefully give us more clues to attempt to reconstruct this terrible tragedy and the motivations behind it. Above all, Schmittmann’s sole surviving daughter is entitled to that. But given the many sequential upheavals that our economy and financial system are going thorough, so are many others. Not everyone is wired to quickly adjust to life and the inevitable hard landing once the perk-ridden corporate show is over, something for which the Schmittmann family paid the ultimate price.
This blog post was published earlier on Medium, here.
This is my weblog and as opposed to the earlier one I ran years ago, this is not one about just politics and markets.