I missed the first couple days of our collective imagining of the horror of being trapped at the bottom of the ocean, adrift, and running out of oxygen. A few days into the unfolding drama of the Titan, it was already likely that they had met the cruel fate they had waived the right to contest, signing onto risks we all do as a matter of course. I myself had signed waivers of risk for my children at trampoline parks, rock-climbing courses, ziplines— all understood to be pro-forma legal necessities for what I believed was essentially safe.
By the time I entered the conversation about the submersible, those same signatures were being held up as evidence against the intervention that followed. They understood the risks, went the argument. On the other hand, it was hard not to feel for the people onboard, especially a young teenager. How could he resist panicked breathing, even as the oxygen was running out and he should stay calm?
My own teenager was struggling with how to remain the right amount of sympathetic. The memes were exploding all over tik-tok, which is the oceanic depth to which he plunges every day, unable to surface. “Eat the rich,” memes proliferated, declaring it right and proper and better for the world that people with that much excess wealth be denied their plaisure domes, even if it meant dying. Another seems to retort by comparing the cost; to a person of average means, the cost of the expedition was akin to three subway sandwiches.
“People always like trapped stories,” I mentioned. When I was a kid, the entire United States media trained its cameras on a well for several days, an 18 month-old trapped down below, while rescue missions declared they wouldn’t give up, and mothers everywhere felt their hearts explode for those poor parents.
And I can recall mines collapsing and international teams recording the every effort, how much worse it feels when people know they are to die. Noam mentions a case where two trapped miners knew they would die, and phones were lowered so they could say their farewells even though they couldn’t be rescued. Later, after they had certainly perished, the whole thing was filled in with concrete, so that nobody would trip down that way ever again, sealed in a tomb and buried alive.
This maybe just captures the human imagination in a primal way, I say. It might have nothing to do with being rich.
I bring it up with my Crossfit class, my best source of diverse (and by that I mean Conservative) views. “Has everyone been following this?” I ask.
“You mean, how our country wasted millions of dollars of resources performing a search for people they knew blew up days before?” Tim taunts.
“Well, I heard it wasn’t certain,” I say.
“Oh come on!” He explodes. “Nothing, and I mean nothing, happens in the ocean, or anywhere on earth that they don’t know about.”
I want to mention how desperately scientists and oceanographers wish that were true, how funding has been cut even to study the floating islands of trash which might be killing off ocean life, or how entirely new species are found under the depths, and how much of the entire ocean remains a complete mystery just a few miles off shore.
But he’s sure that the only thing that is interesting to talk about is the faux-performance of caring, a little show for the American people, and one that could have been avoided if only the government were transparent.
Through my labored breathing in our warmup, I doubt this view: wouldn’t it have been a better show if they didn’t afterwards admit that they suspected beforehand? Doesn’t that ruin the whole effect?
But then again, how like the government, to allow disclosure and transparency at just the wrong time, throwing monkey-wrenches into voting narratives, shoes into the machinery at just the wrong moment. I think of James Comey’s supposedly principled disclosures, two seconds before the election, or the CDC telling us not to wear masks at the beginning of the pandemic. Details like changing science or saving personal protection for doctors ruin a good narrative.
Because the truth is, I really don’t know what a government owes its citizens or how in the world a rescue mission could have possibly confronted this tragedy.
“They signed waivers, we’re not going to use public resources to search after private risk,” seems coldhearted.
But pulling out all the stops for a rescue mission, especially in light of the refugees who died drowning in a ship off of Greece’s shores the same week seems tone-deaf in the other direction.
And anyways, who can resist putting on a show? Isn’t this equipment, the ones owned already by the government, meant to be for just exactly this scenario? Should we not amoritize the public resources we have by using them?
In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter at all. Pulverized in a fraction of a second. Our human empathy imagining them imagining their deaths a waste of time and attention. We collectively worried for them for hundreds of years more than they worried for themselves; blissfully, they would never have seen it coming, liquified and melted into the ocean’s floor in a fraction of a second.
“Maybe it’s poetic justice,” someone at CrossFit suggests. “The people who were rich all got off the Titanic, at least more than the poor people did. Now it’s the rich who all die.”
I don’t know if justice can ever be found in death, I somehow doubt it as a general principle. And this whole episode will be added to the Titanic lore, and then tucked away and forgotten, the way that I have no idea about whatever happened to that baby who fell down a well, whose fate captured America’s attention for a couple of days.
But I do believe that in relentlessly following the drama that seemed to be unfolding, the rescue mission that kept going, we were using them, most of all. It wasn’t about the people at the bottom of that submersible, no matter how much we make it about their waivers and their money. It was about us; what does it feel like to know you will die in an impending way, and to be disconnected. It is worse than gasping for breath in a hospital bed, even though plenty of people feel that suffocation as their lungs fail at the end of life, feel as though they are gasping and there isn’t enough. They are still part of things, listening to the same beeps, speaking to the same doctors.
But to anticipate your own death, to know that it is coming for you, and to be separate, to be trapped, to die a slow unfolding. In imagining it, we have to rehearse it, we have to feel and breathe our own gratitude so very deeply. We have to scorn them because they are suffering in a way that we can’t bring too close, have to distance ourselves from their fate because we would never be so foolish as to do that. But it’s not their foolishness. It’s our superiority.
By all rights, we should feel relief at the fact they were instantaneously liquified. But that’s hard to feel too. What pleasure is there in a story that in the end, held no suspense at all, not even for a single second?
So we’ll change the story yet again, the way that Tim did. Criticizing the choice of those who lusted after a story, those who chose to use our public resources, the ones who declared a good story irresistible, the ones who turned our attention and efforts to those most privileged. However hard that story, it is infinitely easier than confronting mortality.