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Kevin ClarkeJune 22, 2023
This photo provided by OceanGate Expeditions shows a submersible vessel named Titan used to visit the wreckage site of the Titanic. (OceanGate Expeditions via AP)

UPDATE: The Associated Press reports that OceanGate Expeditions has announced that its pilot and chief executive Stockton Rush, along with passengers Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman Dawood, Hamish Harding, and Paul-Henri Nargeolet “have sadly been lost.” The announcement was made a few hours after the U.S. Coast Guard reported that a debris field had been discovered at the bottom of the ocean near the Titanic.

I will take a backseat to no one in my distrust of the global plutocracy, and I am happy to question the common good sense of a $250,000 vanity ticket to the Titanic as swiftly as the next working stiff. But that doesn’t mean I’m ready to take pleasure in the suffering of someone else or that I can’t root for a last-second deliverance from life-threatening circumstances. That sentiment is not universally accepted, judging by the tweets and snark on Twitter, after the story of the ill-fated Titan hit the digital presses this week.

Some among the Twitterati quickly scripted malignant reactions to the plight of the Titan, a purportedly cutting-edge submersible that had been on a sightseeing tour down to the wreck of the Titanic. Comments on the calamity faced by the Titan’s wealthy passengers swept past bemused schadenfreude and right into gruesome cruelty. The gloat-tweeting has become especially disturbing as it’s become increasingly clear that these passengers were gravely misled about the safety of the vessel they boarded in their dangerous descent to view the Titanic.

Titan’s passengers include the teenage son of one of the ticket-buyers, the Titan’s pilot—founder of the company that built and operates the submersible—and a Titanic expert on board to provide commentary on the journey. The most benign comments on social media suggest the two men who bankrolled the dive were bored economic elite and foolish with their money. Even nastier tweets and asides about the victims, well, I will leave to your imagination. It surely perpetrates a kind of spiritual self-harm to engage in joy-taking over what is a tragedy for the people trapped below and their families waiting in hope above.

But if you want to seek any kind of valid moral from this awful event and how the media and public responded to it, you might consider what it says about the rest of us spectating the tragedy from the sidelines and ask yourself some questions: Why am I following this story so intently? What precisely is the payoff I seek? Is it distracting me from more important news and issues? Do I want it to?

Has global media treated the awful loss of migrants with the same attention it has devoted to its breathless reporting of the Titan disaster?

Let’s hope most people are tracking the story of the Titan in expectation of the rescue of its small crew and passengers, that they are compelled to remain attentive by the human drama inherent in the improvised, accelerated rescue effort demanded by the submersible’s loss at such a great depth. How the international media covers the tragedy unfolding in the Atlantic in comparison to coverage of another maritime tragedy on the Mediterranean Sea seems another valid question to probe.

On June 14, a fishing trawler overloaded with people escaping poverty, disorder and conflict in nations like Pakistan, Egypt, Syria and Israel/Palestine capsized off the coast of Greece after launching from Libya a few days before: 104 men and teens were saved and 82 bodies recovered so far, but the vessel sank with as many as 500 people, many women and children among them, trapped in its hold. Has global media treated that awful loss with the same attention it has devoted to its breathless reporting of the Titan disaster?

That’s hard to say at this juncture—at least by a straight count of media reports as the twin disasters unfolded. Both have been well-represented in headlines in recent days, but how well have the two tragedies been contextualized?

If, in the end, the public knows more about what motivated the passengers on the Titan to pay for their exclusive journey than they do about what compelled the refugees and migrants who paid human traffickers to board a doomed fishing trawler, then the media will have failed to do its job. Will media consumers know more next week about the unregulated world of submersible tourism than they know about conflict and economic conditions in the home nations of those lost in the Mediterranean? Will they learn how xenophobia, racism and Europe’s continuing failure to hammer out a collective response to migration contributes to the danger refugees are forced to accept?

More merciful and rational avenues of legal migration could mean the end to such suffering and loss on the high seas.

Since 2014, more than 27,000 people have died or disappeared during the deadly crossing of the central Mediterranean even as regional maritime powers cut back search-and-rescue capacity and criminalized or restricted private efforts to rescue or otherwise assist migrants and refugees struggling to reach Europe. At the same time, European migration policies have had the practical effect of forcing migrating people from the Middle East and North Africa to follow the longest and most dangerous routes across the sea to a landfall in Greece or Italy. More merciful and rational avenues of legal migration could mean the end to such suffering and loss on the high seas.

A similar hard nationalism propels a parallel phenomenon in the Western Hemisphere where migrating people are driven along the most dangerous paths because of U.S. immigration and asylum policies. Many of those journeys end as uncounted deaths somewhere along the dangerous Darién Gap from Colombia into Panama or in the desert of the U.S. Southwest.

In the Mediterranean, the Greek Coast Guard is alleged not to have helped but to have created the catastrophe on June 14 in inhumane service to policy made in Athens and Brussels. In the Atlantic, U.S. and Canadian Navy and Coast Guard ships and aircraft are running search and rescue grids around the site of the Titan’s fateful dive. Independent research vessels with submersibles perhaps capable of reaching the Titan are also scrambling to the scene in the hope that they will have a chance to help.

Millions are being spent on the billionaires’ rescue effort, and I don’t begrudge a nickel of the money spent on saving lives aboard the Titan. But let’s demand that just as much of a commitment is made to rescue thousands across the Mediterranean who are making their perilous journeys not for the thrill of it but because they believe, in pursuit of the better life they desire, they have no other choice.

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