Editor’s note: This article was originally published during the search and rescue mission. Since then, the remains of the Titan submersible were discovered on the seafloor.
In 1912, the ocean liner Titanic collided with an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage. In that disaster, the class of origin of each passenger was one of the factors that determined whether or not they survived. If we look at women in particular, the official list of victims shows that out of a total of 143 female travelers in first class, only four perished (of whom three had voluntarily chosen to stay on the ship). Among the women in second class, 15 died out of 93, while in third class 81 out of 179 women went down with the ship. Third-class passengers were ordered to remain below deck, and, in some cases, were forced to at gunpoint.
This dramatic picture, which seems so distant in time, is coming back these days as a reminder, shining a stark light on the story of the four passengers trapped in the touristic submarine which was going to visit those very relics from 1912. We know the names of these gentlemen, their social position, their previous adventures – they are so-called billionaire adventurers, who seem to venture for pleasure into the extreme areas of which humanity has not yet taken full possession: space and the vast ocean. They are the same people who buy the epitome of a first-class ticket to take a trip into orbit, and who now explore the deepest recesses of the sea, perhaps not only to see the Titanic but also to take an enterprising look at those depths, so rich in metals that they’re being contested among mining groups, always looking for new deposits to exploit.
It’s hard to see these “magnates” doing anything just for the sake of entertainment or adventure for adventure’s sake; they’re no Corto Maltese. One might travel into space to explore the possibility that one day, having reduced the earth to an enormous landfill, those who can afford it will be able to rule over the lower classes from an artificial planet in orbit; or, perhaps, tap into and live off the immense riches hidden in the depths of the oceans.
On the other hand, from Jules Verne to the present day, the list of science fiction novels and movies with such characters as protagonists is long and revealing. And so, in order to save these important personages – who are human beings before anything else, and thus need to be saved – we now see all the necessary means mobilized, sparing no expense, finding new ways of coordination between the navies and air forces of different countries. A commendable effort, which we hope is successful, not only because lives would be saved, but also because it will be a proof of the sheer power of political will if a shared goal is put at the center of a common mission.
But with this also comes the mind-boggling and (for some moral consciences, at least) unfathomable comparison: why wasn’t there even the pale semblance of a rescue operation for the over 600 people crammed into the hold of the fishing boat that sank off the Greek coast? Perhaps it’s because these people, with lives just like ours, with equal dignity and an equal right to happiness, remain nameless to us, except for some phantom-like identity categories that are irredeemably blurred, as if we’re only seeing them through the water that swallowed them up?
What can we learn from these events? The moral is simple: when there’s a will to save, no expense is spared, resources are found, technologies are mobilized, political barriers are overcome. And is this not the commitment that the United Nations made so many years ago, when its members pledged, all together, to fight poverty, climate change, to promote access to the basic human rights that are education and health for everyone? When the distance between appearance and reality gets too stretched, the bond of species solidarity is broken.
At the same time, biology tells us that the reason why the human species is in charge (however unconsciously) of this planet is because it’s the only species truly capable of helping its own members in times of need.
Let us never forget that.