Saturday, April 14, 2012

Understanding Titanic

It’s human nature to try to make sense of a tragedy, and the sinking of the RMS Titanic 100 years ago this weekend certainly qualifies. Eight hundred fifteen passengers and 668 crew died in the icy waters of the north Atlantic on that “Night to Remember,” and since then many have tried to make sense of the events of that night. But it’s possible to read too much into the Titanic disaster and lose the real lessons of the liner’s loss.

Conspiracy Theories. One way to find meaning in a big, public disaster is to make the event seem more significant than it is. Almost from the time the first SOS signals were received, conspiracy theories have sprung up in an attempt to explain Titanic’s sinking. In one theory, the ship was sunk intentionally in an attempt by the Jesuits to kill wealthy opponents of a centralized world banking system. In another, it was a massive insurance fraud perpetuated by Titanic’s owners. In yet another, Titanic’s sinking was the secret, opening salvo of World War I.  Along the way, many of the usual conspiracy suspects have been blamed: communists, Jews, war profiteers, even the Irish. Conspiracy theories add a level of significance that helps us deal with great events. How could Titanic have been just another shipwreck? The ship was too big, her passengers too glamorous, the voyage itself too celebrated. It’s the same impulse that makes some unable to accept that President Kennedy was killed by a lone, confused gunman, or that Princess Diana died in an ordinary car accident like the kind that occur in every city of the world every day.

Special Explanations. Even people who don’t accept a full-blown conspiracy theory explanation for Titanic’s demise look for that one thing to explain the sinking. This year alone, the media reported claims that her captain was drunk at the time of the collision and that a “supermoon” tidal event caused more ice to be in the ship’s path than would normally be expected. Other explanations range from a fire in the boiler room to a mummy’s curse.

An Ordinary Shipwreck. The fact is there was nothing special about the Titanic sinking. The conclusions reached by official inquiries immediately after the disaster sound similar those reached by any maritime incident inquiry in modern times: failure to proceed at safe speed, inadequate or improperly-used safety equipment, proceeding despite weather and other warnings. But Titanic was famous even before it sailed, and that fame – soon to become notoriety – called attention to those conclusions that led to reforms of equipment requirements, manning, and watch keeping, many of which are still in force today. If a lonely fishing boat or a beat up old tramp steamer had suffered that same fate that night, there would have been no headlines, no inquiries with far-reaching consequences. Titanic’s legacy is not that she’s famous because she’s special; it’s that she's special because she’s famous.

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