The word is “postmortem,” and it fits.
For that is what the media has been conducting in the wake of the catastrophe that befell the Titan in the North Atlantic with the tragic loss of five lives.
And yet, almost immediately, there was an outcry. In the words of The New York Times:
On one vessel, five people died on a very expensive excursion that was supposed to return them to the lives they knew. On the other, perhaps 500 people died just days earlier on a squalid and perilous voyage, fleeing poverty and violence in search of new lives.
After contact was lost with the five inside a submersible descending to the Titanic, multiple countries and private entities sent ships, planes and underwater drones to pursue a faint hope of rescue. That was far more effort than was made on behalf of the hundreds aboard a dangerously overcrowded, disabled fishing trawler off the Greek coast while there were still ample chances for rescue.
And it was the lost submersible, the Titan, that drew enormous attention from news organizations worldwide and their audiences, far more than the boat that sank in the Mediterranean and the Greek Coast Guard’s failure to help before it capsized.
On the one hand: the deaths of five conspicuously wealthy people who perished in the quest for adventure (and some would say, foolishly so) — seeking remnants of the Titanic.
On the other hand: the deaths of hundreds of conspicuously poor people who perished in the quest for a better life.
On the one hand: the biographies of those lost on the Titan — including the fact that the chief executive of OceanGate Expeditions, the company that owned Titan, who was piloting the submersible, was Stockton Rush, 61.
His story is a narrative of inherited prestige and status — descended from two signers of the Declaration of Independence (Richard Stockton and Benjamin Rush) and married to Wendy Weil, a great-great-granddaughter of Isidor and Ida Straus, who perished on the Titanic.
On the other hand: the biographies of the refugees who drowned.
Or, rather: the utter lack of biographies.
OK, forget biographies for a moment.
Just tell me one of their names.
Again, The New York Times:
Those on the fishing boat — as many as 750, officials have estimated, with barely 100 survivors — were migrants primarily from South Asia and the Middle East, trying to reach Europe.
“We saw how some lives are valued and some are not,” Judith Sunderland, acting deputy director for Europe at the group Human Rights Watch, said in an interview. And in looking at the treatment of migrants, she added, “We cannot avoid talking about racism and xenophobia.”
At a forum in Athens on Thursday, former President Barack Obama weighed in, saying of the submersible, “the fact that that’s gotten so much more attention than 700 people who sank, that’s an untenable situation.”
Theoretically, compassion is not a zero-sum game. Theoretically, one must not say: “I have enough room in my soul for caring about this five, and not enough for these 500.”
Hesed — compassion — is like a candle’s flame. It does not get dimmer the more it is used.
But, in reality, in the world of the media and of celebrity: Yes, rich people get more coverage than poor people.
And, sometimes, people themselves don’t even make the cut.
Let me share two stories with you from the dark days of World War II — stories that ask us to judge our humanity.
The first story is the story of the Lipizzaner stallions. The Lipizzaner stallions are a famed breed of riding horse, developed during the Habsburg Empire in the 16th century. They are considered a master breed of horses — the aristocracy of horses, if you will.
Come with me to the final days of World War II in Europe. “Operation Cowboy” was a combined effort — of Allied forces and German forces — to save that fabled breed of horses.
Gripping his Thompson sub-machine gun, Stewart, already a grizzled veteran at the age of 29, scanned the field warily. The first SS attack had been beaten back, but the enemy would return. He glanced at his men. All had done well. ‘Stewart’s Foreign Legion,’ as they jokingly were calling themselves, had fought its first battle and won. Surrounded deep inside hostile territory, the small force was tasked with baby-sitting the world’s most precious horses. It was the toughest assignment Stewart had faced since landing in Normandy the previous year, but his most important. What was at stake was nothing less than the survival of a living European treasure.
Let’s just read that last line again aloud. “What was at stake was nothing less than the survival of a living European treasure.”
The second story: “The Monuments Men.”
“The Monuments Men” was a movie with the kind of all-star cast you rarely see in movies anymore: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Cate Blanchett.
It is the story of how Allied soldiers tried to find and save pieces of art and other culturally significant items before the Nazis could destroy or steal them.
Years ago, I watched this movie on a long plane ride to Israel.
Or, rather, I tried to watch it.
I admired the performances, but I could not tolerate the story.
Here I was, traveling to Israel — from which the British turned away Jewish refugees during the darkest days of Jewish history — watching a film about the heroic acts of soldiers to save … what?
Oh, right, works of art.
What about parallel efforts to save true works of art: Those people made in the image of God?
As there had been no parallel effort to save — not horses, not beasts, albeit beautiful beasts — but the true “living European treasures” — Jews, and others, made in the image of God.
The Allies expended more effort in saving horses and art objects than in saving Jews.
Almost 80 years later, the comparison is not between inanimate objects of beauty, or animate animals of beauty, and human beings.
No, the comparison is between the beautiful and the not so beautiful; the rich and famous and the poor; the suddenly famous and the eternally unknown.
I mourn the losses of those passengers in the submersible. More than that: I actually admire them. Their spirit of adventure is absolutely necessary. What has ever been discovered or accomplished without a spirit of adventure and even risk?
But, I am advocating a larger, and perhaps deeper, sense of adventure.
I am advocating not adventure tourism, but an adventurous morality. A moral passion to match our wanderlust.
When will the messianic age come closer?
When we consider the nameless and hapless with the same moral fervor as we think of the well-named and moneyed.
To all those who lost loved ones this past week — I extend my hand in sympathy.
When I say “all,” I mean “all.”