Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
It’s a scenario so improbable it sounds like the plot of a Hollywood thriller: A submersible watercraft, operated by a pilot and occupied by tourists who paid some $250,000 apiece, descended to the ocean floor to allow its passengers see the wreckage of the RMS Titanic. And then it disappeared.
Now, a massive hunt is on to find the submersible before its passengers run out of oxygen.
The Canadian Armed Forces and the US Coast Guard are searching for the submersible, which lost contact with its parent ship on Sunday morning, off the coast of Cape Cod. OceanGate Expeditions, the company operating the expedition, would not confirm who was on board, but we know that the passengers include Hamish Harding, a British businessman who is based in the United Arab Emirates; Shahzada Dawood, a Pakistani businessman; and his son, Sulaiman Dawood.
It’s interesting to watch the national fascination with this story, especially compared to, say, the attention paid to the sinking of another boat, this one full of desperate migrants in the Mediterranean last week; dozens were killed, and hundreds of men, women and children are still missing. Many migrants, mostly from Syria, Egypt and Pakistan, may be dead.
And the Greek Coast Guard, despite indications that the boat was in distress, did not intervene, blaming the smuggled migrants who they say didn’t want help. Widespread outrage and anguish for the hundreds of souls taking an extraordinary risk in search of a better life, and those who failed them along the way, seems much more justifiable than the frenzy over a small, lost group of hyper-niche tourists, tragic as both circumstances may turn out to be. And yet, while the migrant story is far from being ignored, it’s not receiving the same breathless moment-by-moment updates accorded the lost Titanic hunters.
But human interest, we know, does not at all run proportional to human suffering, and often has little to do with who or what is deserving of significant attention. And the story of a vessel occupied by wealthy curiosity-seekers, lost in the depths of the ocean in its search to find a vessel occupied by wealthy curiosity-seekers lost in the depths of the ocean, has all the component parts of an addictive story: irony, suspense, potential tragedy, potential glory, lifestyles of the rich, aspiration and hubris.
There is, first, the pure spectacle of the rescue effort, with its ticking countdown clock until oxygen runs out. The stakes could not be higher.
And there is the novelty: Who, at least among us plebs, even knew it was an option to take a private “submersible” down to see the wreckage of the Titanic? (Who among us plebs had even heard the word “submersible” used as a noun before this incident?) This story gives most of us a little peek into lives and escapades that we aren’t wealthy enough to even imagine — and with it, perhaps aspiration for some and resentment for others.
The parallels to the Titanic, itself a story that still engenders widespread fascination more than a century after its sinking, add another layer of interest. The sinking of the Titanic sticks with us in part because it’s a story of profound hubris: the grand “unsinkable” ship, carrying wealthy journeyers and stocked with the finest goods, meeting a dramatic (and cinematic) demise — too fast for help to arrive, but slow enough to be captured later in an on-screen play-by-play, and then engulfed by the ocean and not found for decades.
The moral: No human creation is any match for Mother Nature. And now, a small number of ostensibly fabulously wealthy people, paying several times what many Americans earn in a year for the privilege of seeing the century-old wreckage, have now also disappeared in a deep abyss.
And then there’s the element of fear, and fear’s flip side: curiosity. There is often an inherent fear of the unknown and that which lies beyond the land we live on — the depths of the water in our oceans, the infiniteness of space. And there is curiosity about the same — the enduring human desire to explore further and push boundaries. And, of course, there’s a cost that so many explorers pay — their lives — serving as proof that the fear was warranted, and the curiosity had consequences.
I wish we were a better species and that our attention were drawn to events according to their actual importance and scale. But we are a species preoccupied not just with the lives and well-being of others, but with big and often unanswerable questions: What else is out there? How far can humanity go? What are the ramifications of going too far?
A handful of curious and talented people have dedicated their lives to answering those questions. And a handful of the very rich have dedicated at least some of their funds to getting a taste of extraordinary places, whether that’s to the bottom of the ocean or out to space.
The rest of us observe and wait to see how the story will end, and if a moral will emerge for us to examine and learn from. But this is not a parable; it’s five human beings and many more working around the clock to save their lives.
I hope they’re rescued. I hope the very wealthy among them pay back the cost of what is likely a pricey and largely publicly funded search effort. And then I hope we can collectively turn our attention to the stories of those who we can learn arguably more from: the people who courageously set out into the unknown in pursuit of a better life. Those stories may be less cinematic, but they are far more important.