Tragedy of capsized migrants barely noticed amid loss of Titan

by Lauren Sowers

I know what it’s like to wait for someone lost at sea. 

When I was 20 years old, working at a music cafe in Charleston, S.C., I got the call that my mother’s boat was lost in a massive storm during a sailing race to Bermuda. I was assured that the powers that be would do everything they could to locate her. I remember rehearsing the delivery, the tone and the inflection to tell my little brother in the least panicked way possible. My boss asked if I wanted to go home that day. I stayed. 

We bore witness to two shipwrecks within days in June. First, a boat carrying as many as 750 refugee migrants capsized in the Mediterranean. Only 104 survived. Among the dead were an estimated 100 children. Second, an unregulated Titanic wreckage tourist submersible, The Titan, went missing carrying five wealthy passengers. The world couldn’t look away while the search was on. It had imploded. 

The shipwrecked migrants were not on board for the adventure. They had not signed extensive waivers. This wasn’t some cowboy millionaire’s deregulated pet project. It was a vessel carrying people disenfranchised by war, by climate change, by political destabilization. “No one puts their children in a boat,” wrote the poet Warsan Shire, “unless the water is safer than the land.”  

While we fetishize the fancy underwater experience of billionaires, the migrant plight has a “Hollywood problem.” It lacks the glamour to capture our attention for more than a 24-hour news cycle, if even that. Amer Ezra Zeed was among the migrants who perished in the Mediterranean seeking a livable future, while her husband, Kassem Abo Zeed, remained in Pakistan. The night that the boat went down in the dark Mediterranean, the world lost real love stories, far more meaningful than any Leo-and-Kate-in-Titanic moment. 

After news of the Titan’s disappearance broke, France dispatched a research vessel, The Atalante, across The Atlantic to aid in location and recovery. I searched but found no such news of the Atalante’s efforts in the Mediterranean. 

On further scrutiny, most of us were baffled by the reckless deregulation and the PlayStation controller at the helm of the Titan. We cringed, knowing that industry leaders had publicly decried the vessel’s viability. We’re incredulous that the ship had no underwater navigation, and was guided only by text messages from a surface vessel. We wince at the projected price tags of these risky rescue operations. 

And yet, we care for the lives aboard, because two things can be true at the same time: We can feel compassion for those suffering a bitter end to a fun exploration, while also recognizing the agency and privilege that got them there. But what of those travelers whose only aim is survival?  

The Titan tragedy left me with a thought I couldn’t dislodge from my brain: If we proceed with brazen deregulation in public health, weaponry, artificial intelligence development and ecology, we are on a sinking ship of our own making. If we continue down the path of algorithmically engineered public discourse and news-as-entertainment, we can expect dark depths and no rescue in sight. 

To be clear: This bigger picture doesn’t diminish the sadness and the suffering of those aboard an entertainment vessel. But if our attention span is large enough for a billionaire’s misadventures; if the Global North’s resources are this quickly deployed across entire oceans; if our hearts are indeed this big — then where else do we owe such attention, resources and care?  

Can we turn this ship around? Can we stop using the “inevitability” of suffering as an excuse for our lack of action? Can we recognize that much of the suffering we call “inevitable” is, in fact, a predictable result of how we’ve structured our world?  

While I waited for my mom in that storm, I thought of how she was the only woman on board, and I wondered if her dark sense of humor was still intact. I knew that if she didn’t make it, my brother and I would live with the idea that she died adventuring and that her choices were in pursuit of joy. We’d go forward, knowing that such a risk was worth something to her or else she’d have never set foot on that boat. In the end, her boat emerged from the storm. 

As we honor the courage of wealthy thrill seekers with bold and pricey rescue efforts, I hope we can also bring ourselves to do at least as much for children escaping war zones and the inevitable catastrophes of climate change. We’ve been sold the idea that care and action require either/or thinking, but I think we know better. 

Perhaps our hearts are big enough to hold it all, but our attention and political economies are just too small. Where do we grow from here?  

Lauren Sowers is a mediator and communication strategist in North Carolina and a master’s student in the field of conflict resolution at The Carter School (George Mason University), specializing in media, narrative and public discourse.