September 26 2023

‘Five lives lost is a tragedy. 600 is a statistic.’ 

‘Five lives lost is a tragedy. 600 is a statistic.’ 

On Friday last week, a crowd of people, hailing from across the diaspora of Africa and the Middle East, clambered onto a rickety vessel docked on the Libyan coast.  Coordinated by smuggling gangs demanding more than their pound of flesh from each asylum seeker, the people were promised safe passage to Europe, whether they were travelling in seek of asylum or in pursuit of a better life.  Once a vivid blue, photos show a stain-ridden and rust-riddled fishing ship (unchristened, but from here, the Pylos), perhaps fit to carry 350 people.  Heedless of this, smugglers shoved over 600 on board, children and adults huddled in the hold or crammed cheek by jowl above deck, all praying that this most trepidatious part of their journey would be short and smooth.

Three days later, on Monday this week, a troop of adventurers, from countries ranging from Britain to Pakistan, clambered onto a different rickety vessel.  Looking more like a medieval siege weapon than an advanced, twenty-first century submersible, it was one up from something cobbled together in a mad inventor’s garage.  The five tourists’ ambition was to descend to the ocean floor and peer out, through a viewport barely bigger than an iPad screen, at the wreck of the Titanic. This ambition was not rooted in scientific endeavour, but in morbid curiosity and proof of chutzpah.  Each of the five tourists paid as much as a quarter of a million dollars for the privilege of being sardined before receiving a glimpse of the Titanic burial ground, then rising to the surface to gloat about what their wealth entitled them to see.  One-upmanship. Nothing more.

Two days after the Pylos departed, it encountered squalls in the Ionian Sea, just off the coast of Greece.  The overladen boat was met by the Greek coastguard. Rather than guide the ship to safe harbour, or coordinate a rescue operation from the outset, the coastguard seemed hopeful that the Pylos would float out beyond Greek waters.  Once they realised that the currents and the winds were not in their favour,  the coastguard are said to have attempted a difficult, dangerous towing manoeuvre, one that seemed as likely to send the boat into the depths as to save the migrants.   While suggesting that the coastguard wanted the boat to sink may be a step too far, their behaviour suggests they were more interested in seeing the boat, safely or otherwise, out of Greek waters than in saving the people on board.

It was only after the Pylos began to capsize, drenching its passengers into the Mediterranean waters, that a meaningful response began. But by now, it was too late.  Despite a ‘frenzy’ of ships in the area coming to the downed vessel’s aid, it sank.  Only 104 of the passengers were pulled from the sea, with over 500 still unaccounted for, presumed dead.  This would not be the first time that the Greece coastguard tried to evade its responsibilities with tragic consequences, with a study published last year showing a consistent pattern of Greek ‘tow-aways’.  But Greece is not the only guilty party.  As reports have made clear in recent years, the EU’s semi-privatised, semi-militarised Frontex border control, which was also involved in the Pylos tragedy, is as interested in deterring future crossings as it is in saving those at sea. Much like in the UK, deterrence through cruelty and death is its modus operandi.

Our erstwhile adventurers in the North Atlantic departed, along with the Titan, onboard a ship from  Canada’s east coast (crossing across different regulatory regimes to minimise required regulation compliance).  Reaching its diving point in the North Atlantic, the Titan, with its passengers sealed in,  was released.  Sinking like a silvery stone, it descended leagues under the sea, with its tracking responder at first pinging back its location every fifteen minutes.  After almost two hours, the responder went quiet. Nothing was heard – the Titan had vanished. Whether because the submersible had imploded, had become entangled on the ocean floor, or had suffered some other catastrophic failure, something had gone wrong.

The response to this disappearance could not have been more different to that of the Pylos. Aware that the submersible carried four days (breathlessly reported as 96 hours) worth of oxygen, it was mere hours after the Titan was reported uncontactable that the resources of the international community were mobilised.  US and Canadian coastguards sent out patrols, and other commercial vessels are sailing over the region, with sonar buoys coordinating with the ships to try and trace the Titan.  In the air, two American C-130’s are scouring the seas, accompanied by a Canadian P8 Poseidon and P3 Aurora, in case the submersible – which is such a feat of engineering that its release hatch is only accessible from the outside – has surfaced, with its occupants bobbing in the Atlantic unable to free themselves.  From Europe, the NATO Submarine Rescue System is on hand to lend support if needed, while the French have mobilised their navy.

Across the media, there have been similarly discordant responses. After the sinking of the Pylos, there was brief news coverage. 600 people had died in the Mediterranean after a single vessel, watched by the Greek coastguard and the Frontex border patrol, sank.  Most newspapers and broadcasters reacted with a shrug of the shoulders, seeing the deaths as par for the course – just 600 more interments for the Mediterranean burial ground. In contrast, the moment that the Titan, containing five people, dropped out of contact, the eyes of the western world were turned to this crisis in the North Atlantic.  Live streams updating the world on the rescue are front and centre on the New York Times’ and the The Times’ websites, with reporters providing minute by minute updates.  At the time of writing, the New York Times reports that a Canadian surveillance plane has detected ‘underwater noises’ and a ‘banging sound’.

This is an indictment of our society and our media. On one hand we have desperate, poverty stricken people clutching at straws to improve their lives.  There is nothing to suggest they were not genuine asylum seekers, fleeing persecution or death because of their race, religion or gender.  Even if they were ‘mere’ economic migrants, they were still people desperate enough to look at the decrepit boat they had paid their life savings to be herded on to and to conclude that the journey was a risk worth taking.  This was not a cavalier decision, easily taken, and nor should it have been – as the tragedy proved.  With hours to react, the authorities sat on their hands, waiting – hoping – for nature to take its course. There was no live stream, and little meaningful coverage, with the 600 deaths met with callous indifference or a morbid curiosity. Many asked why those on board would take such a risk.

On the other hand, we have a small group of immensely wealthy people.  Curious to experience something that will mark them out among their contemporaries in the stratosphere of society, they each are given a disclaimer and, fully aware of what it says, sign it and hand over vast sums of money.  In this disclaimer, the company notes that the submersible has not been certified and that the journey is rhapsodically dangerous, mentioning the risk of death no fewer than five times on the first page.  (Justifying this, OceanGate, Titan‘s creators, claimed that the technology is so innovative that ‘bringing an outside entity up to speed’ before ‘real-world testing’ would not be feasible. It would be ‘anathema to rapid innovation’.)  Within hours of their entirely predictable disappearance, governments across the world have reacted, with an Admiral of the US Coast Guard telling news reporters they are bringing ‘every resource to bear’.  The world stands by with bated breath, praying for the discovery and rescue of the tourists who chose to descend into the Atlantic’s water depths. Few ask why those on board would take such a risk.

If we were being kind, we could look to Stalin as a defence for this contrast in attitudes.  Five lives lost is a tragedy. 600 is a statistic.  The thought that we, as relatively privileged members of western society, have helped send 600 people (to say nothing of the tens of thousands before them) to a watery tomb is too much to contemplate. So we don’t.  Instead, we watch as governments and maritime agencies spend millions of pounds rescuing five of the dilettante rich from the all to obvious consequences of actions chosen for their own entertainment.

Human nature might explain part of our response to the twin crises, but not easily.  Perhaps we feel more empathy for the adventurers in the submersible, or experience a primitive excitement at the thought of pushing the boundaries of human endeavour, or just view those on board the Pylos as ‘illegals’ undeserving of human empathy.  But these first two seem tenuous. It is the latter that cuts to the heart of the issue.  Those on board the Pylos are barely human in western society’s eyes, with the tragedy a mirror reflecting the growing divisions in global society.  We have been cultured to deify the rich and condemn the poor.

As the search for the deep-sea tourists continues, no one has discussed its cost, or whether they should recoup some of this cost from a group of people (including at least one billionaire) who collectively spent one and a quarter million pounds for an undersea adventure.  It is simply something that we, as a society, must do.  Meanwhile, these self-same governments rage at the cost of accommodating asylum seekers or providing them with legal counsel.  Only one of these events is a true tragedy.  It is damning society hasn’t noticed yet.