Commentary: What the Titanic teaches

By STEPHEN COX, Written for United Press International  |  April 12, 2002 at 11:26 AM
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Early morning, April 15, 1912: the steamer Carpathia races across a dark ocean littered with ice. She is responding to signals sent by the Titanic, 58 miles away: "Come at once. We have struck a berg." Then, in the rising dawn, the Carpathia discovers all that remains of the world's greatest ship: 20 lifeboats and 700 survivors, one-third of the people who embarked on the Titanic five days before.

It is a scene that the world has never forgotten. But on the 90th anniversary of the sinking, we may ask, why should the Titanic disaster be remembered, when so many others are consigned to oblivion?

That question usually is answered in the following way: The Titanic warns us against the arrogance of power. The rich men who operated the Titanic gambled carelessly with the lives of their passengers, and lost. The disaster shows what happens when people believe they no longer have anything to fear from the forces of nature.

If that account seems trite, it is. And it isn't even true.

The Titanic was not the product of arrogance and stupidity. She was the product of technological advances that, for the first time, made travel across the ocean safe and comfortable for all classes of passengers. She was powerful enough to survive any Atlantic storm; she could even survive a head-on collision with an iceberg.

Her misfortune was that the officer steering her had the ordinary human reaction when he saw an iceberg coming "right ahead!" He turned the Titanic's prow, and the ship suffered one of the few types of injury that could prove fatal to her -- a long, long series of wounds to the side.

Investigation revealed that the Titanic had been following normal navigational practices and that she was equipped with more than normal safety features --including 200 more lifeboat spaces than government regulations required. In fact, more than 400 of the Titanic's lifeboat spaces were never used. A very large ship, like a very large plane, is hard to evacuate completely; even if the Titanic had provided lifeboat spaces equal to the number of passengers, there would not have been enough time to use them all.

No plans or regulations can guarantee that any vessel -- or any human enterprise -- is completely safe. Every action, even the apparently obvious action of turning a ship to evade an iceberg, carries with it an incalculable risk. And our moral decisions are just as risky as our practical decisions. The Titanic continues to fascinate the world because it raised this essential fact to the highest pitch of dramatic intensity.

The Titanic sank in two hours and forty minutes --the length of a classic play. During that time, everyone involved in the disaster had to ask the most basic questions about what life is worth and what means may be used to save it. People had time to think, observe, reflect; but they finally had to decide, irrevocably, what they ought to do. Their decisions were as various as the individuals themselves.

It is a remarkable fact: nothing about these people's age, class, sex, or ethnic origin made it possible to predict how they would respond. The only demographic generalization that has much meaning is this: male passengers with second-class accommodations had a much lower survival rate than anybody else. It was 8 percent --- less than one-tenth the rate for women in second class and less than one-half the rate for men in general. Males in second class --- teachers, small businessmen, civil servants -- seem to have adhered more readily than anyone else to the Victorian code of "women and children first." But even some of these men entered lifeboats when they got the chance. It was a decision that each person had to make.

The Titanic is not a sociology text or a book of easy moral lessons; it is an inexhaustible gallery of characters, each captured at the most difficult moment of moral decision. Like the terror attacks of Sept. 11, the Titanic disaster offers us the broadest possible vision of individuals in crisis.

Here are some of them:

*Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, the Titanic's wireless operators, who kept sending messages even after they knew it was too late and the sea was swirling toward their cabin door.

*Edward Smith, the Titanic's captain, whose sense of his own duty appears to have kept him from delegating enough authority to others to respond effectively to the emergency.

*John Jacob Astor, financier, who, it is said, made sarcastic remarks about the ethic of "women and children first," but obeyed that ethic anyway.

*The playboy Benjamin Guggenheim and his secretary Victor Giglio, who changed into their evening clothes to show they were "prepared to go down like gentlemen."

*George Symons, crewman in charge of lifeboat No. 1, who refused to help anyone into his boat, despite the fact that it would hold 28 more people.

*The passengers in lifeboat No. 8, who quarreled with the seaman in charge and kept him from going back to rescue others.

*-Chief baker Charles Joughin, who was assigned to command a lifeboat but decided to stay behind because he "would have set a bad example."

*Ida Straus, who went down with the ship because she refused to leave her elderly husband Isidor and he refused to "go before the other men."

*-J. Bruce Ismay, head of the company that owned the Titanic, who helped women and children into lifeboats and then took a seat himself when he saw no other passengers there to take it --- and has been vilified ever since. His action may have been prompted by common sense, but was it right?

*Arthur Rostron, captain of the Carpathia, who risked his life and the lives of almost 800 passengers to try to reach the Titanic before she sank, and has been hailed as a hero ever since. But the same question can be asked: Did he do what was right? And what would you have done?

The Titanic does not teach us answers to questions like that. It simply prompts us to think about them individually, and while we are thinking, to renew our respect for the dignity of individual choice and the unconquerable richness of human life.

*

(Stephen Cox is a professor of literature at the University of California-San Diego and author of "The Titanic Story: Hard Choices, Dangerous Decisions," Open Court, Chicago, 1999. He may be contacted at sdcox@ucsd.edu).

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