Most of the English-speaking world’s view of the 20th century is neatly enough book-ended by two entirely avoidable human tragedies.
This week we will mark the centenary of one — the sinking of the Titanic in the early hours of April 15, 1912. The other is too raw, too immediate, so a different, evolving perspective redefines our response to New York’s 9/11 in a natural, ongoing fermentation.
Our reaction to the sinking of the Titanic remains entirely disproportionate to the losses — human, social or cultural — involved. It has become an industry, a brand that keeps on giving. It has come to symbolise so many different things to so many different people. It is the ultimate chameleon catastrophe — you can use it to tell any story, true or untrue. It might be exaggerating, but only ever so slightly, to suggest that the story of the White Star liner has become a secular scripture exposing our hubris, vulnerability and, despite icebergs and emigration forced by poverty, our determination to improve our lot on this earth.
Some Titanic stories are too diminishing and remind us of our capacity to inflict terrible things on each other. Unfortunately, because we are human, the women-and-children-first myth still has far too many parallels. Syrian government lip-service on establishing peace as army helicopter gunships are used to strafe refugees fleeing to Turkey is a live example of power promising one thing but doing another.
It does not undermine Belfast’s decision to so wonderfully mark the occasion to point out that just three months after the Titanic sank — and long after the first film on the sinking was released — 2,000 Catholic workers were driven from the Harland and Wolff shipyards where the liner was built in one of the regular, tacitly sanctioned, persecutions faced by that community. Insulated as we are by the welfare state it is hard to comprehend what being denied the opportunity to feed your family because of your religion might mean but the decades of the Troubles give some hint at the lasting trauma inflicted on that captive community.
Neither does it diminish Belfast’s admirable innovations to point out that shipyard owner Edward Harland’s response to the first Home Rule Bill in 1886 was to threaten to move the entire, region-sustaining enterprise to the Clyde or the Mersey. At this remove it is sometimes too convenient to deny these realities but, thankfully, we are at last at the point where they can inform rather than define relationships on this island.
It may be that the Titanic’s greatest, most challenging legacy is a question. Would today’s steerage passengers, whatever the equivalent might be, fare any better than those who died 100 years ago? Have we progressed beyond locking escape routes for third-class passengers? Have we gone beyond ship’s officers murdering third-class travellers passengers to make room for those passengers deemed “better” in lifeboats?
So many of the millions who died in famines since 1912 — India, China, Russia, Ethiopia, Sudan or North Korea — would say not. So many of the individuals condemned to a hell on earth — Auschwitz, Stalin’s gulags, Mao’s re-education centres, Abu Ghraib or Letterfrack — would be hard to convince.
Maybe that is why the Titanic story is still so alive in our consciousness. It reminds us, in life-or-death terms, that life is neither equal or fair.