The Thin Veneer of Civilization

We’ve never gone on a cruise; now I remember why. The most interesting story in the news these days does not come from the world of politics. Rather, it is the sinking of the Costa Concordia off the Tuscany cost, a mere three hours or so out of port. The trappings of high-technology civilization make us feel secure, but much of the time we are just a moment away from primal disaster. Ships have been running aground on rocks and reefs for centuries, but what was a predictable hazard five hundred years ago seems shocking in the 21st century, especially when it happens in the thoroughly mapped and domesticated Mediterranean. The image of the Costa Concordia lying on its side is a classic image of the fallibility of modern civilization:

For the passengers, the incident was almost indistinguishable from the Titanic or, from the world of fiction, the Poseidon. As usual, human error, and perhaps human cowardice, played a pivotal part:

The ship’s Italian owner, a subsidiary of Carnival Cruise lines, issued a statement late Sunday saying there appeared to be “significant human error” on the part of the captain, Francesco Schettino, “which resulted in these grave consequences.” …

A French couple who boarded the Concordia in Marseille, Ophelie Gondelle and David Du Pays, told the Associated Press they saw the captain in a lifeboat, covered by a blanket, well before all the passengers were off the ship.

“The commander left before and was on the dock before everyone was off,” said Gondelle, 28, a French military officer. …

Coast Guard officers later spotted Schettino on land as the evacuation unfolded. The officers urged him to return to his ship and honor his duty to stay aboard until everyone was safely off the vessel, but he ignored them, Coast Guard Cmdr. Francesco Paolillo said.

Captain Schettino apparently left the ship’s waiters and chefs, and a group of British dancers, to look after the ship’s 4,000 passengers. Is that some kind of metaphor for our era? But the captain’s real crime was steering his ship within 150 yards or so of Giglio Island. The ship’s presence just offshore is inexplicable:

All it takes is a few moments of bad judgment for centuries of progress to fall away. The passengers on the Costa Concordia faced the same terrors as ocean-goers of the last millennium and responded with the same combination of heroism, selfishness and persistence as our ancestors. The main difference, perhaps, is that nowadays we are surprised when we are called upon to be courageous.