America and the Titanic – 100 Years Later

April 15, 2012 will be the one-hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, the gigantic ocean liner billed as being “unsinkable.” The Titanic left Southampton, England on April 10, 1912 on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City with a crew of approximately 885, including the Captain, Edward John Smith. The passengers, which numbered approximately 1,317 people, included some of the richest and most celebrated people in the world: John Jacob Astor IV and the “Unsinkable” Margaret “Molly” Brown, whose husband made millions in the mining industry. The passengers also included around a thousand people — men, women and children who traveled in Second and Third Class, perhaps looking to start a new life in America.

We all know the story of what happened that cold night in April, as the Titanic’s Captain ordered her into an ice field at full speed; she collided with an iceberg, which tore a long horizontal gash in the side of the great ship. Five of eight waterproof compartments designed to prevent the ship from sinking began to fill with water as the freezing ocean poured into the gash in hull.

The Titanic had 20 lifeboats, enough for only about half her passengers, because her designers decided that the original number of lifeboats (64) made the deck look “cluttered.” The crew was ill-prepared to handle the emergency, and many of the lifeboats were launched barely half full. As the bow of the ship continued to flood with seawater, it sank completely under water and the stern lifted out of the sea at a steep angle. Finally, with loud groans, cracks and the shriek of tearing metal, the giant ship split in half, and at 2:20a.m., the Titanic disappeared beneath the waves. More than a thousand people ended up in the lethally cold water (28° F), where they drowned, or died of cardiac arrest or hypothermia within minutes.

There are many reasons the Titanic sank; the ship’s design was fatally flawed. The steel plates and rivets were determined to have been defective. Captain Smith ignored the warnings of icebergs ahead and plowed full speed through the fog into an ice field. The freighter California ignored the Titanic’s distress calls and signal flares. The crew and passengers were not prepared to handle the emergency. Over 1,500 people lost their lives that night, out of the more than 2,200 souls on board the ill-fated ship.

The Titanic disaster was a perfect storm, where error ran smack into arrogance, which ran full speed into accident, which stumbled into incompetence, which sank into fatality.

As I contemplate the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the great ship Titanic, it occurs to me that there are parallels to be drawn. Our nation is not unlike that great ship; we’ve been told that America is unsinkable, that there is no way our democracy could be destroyed, but I’m not so sure.  In 2000, the Supreme Court declared George W. Bush to be our president in a decision that some still consider illegal. During the Bush administration, America illegally went to war against the nation of Iraq, based on lies. The Fourth Amendment was undermined by the Patriot Act, which permitted the president to imprison anyone he deemed to be a terrorist – without probable cause. It further permitted the president to hold that person indefinitely without being charged with any crime. Under the Patriot Act, the administration could also wiretap private citizens, read their emails and spy on them – without a warrant. George Bush also approved the waterboarding of prisoners, an act condemned by the Geneva Conventions as a war crime.

Maybe I’m stretching the analogy when I liken America to the Titanic; perhaps if the Titanic had had a different captain who exercised more caution when he was apprised of the ice field ahead, the ship would have made it safely across the Atlantic to New York City on its scheduled arrival date, April 16, 1911. Certainly if America had elected a different president in 2000, our history might have turned out differently. The Supreme Court gave us George W. Bush, and over the next eight years, the great ship America very nearly foundered under the weight of tax cuts for the wealthiest 1%, deregulation of Wall Street and two unfunded wars.

Now, the Republicans are once again vying with each other to tell us that they are God’s choice to be president; Rick Santorum has proclaimed himself to be the “Jesus candidate.” They tell us that this country should be run on Biblical principles, and that there should not be a separation of Church and State. The Supreme Court of the United States has shown itself to be divided along political lines, with four of the justices firmly on the side of the 1% and the corporations. The gap between the richest Americans and the rest of us has never been larger.

Americans elected another Captain in 2008, Barack Obama, and he has shown himself to be cautious and careful when it comes to guiding our ship of state through the ice fields of recession, war, debt and unemployment. Our economy is improving, the unemployment rate is going down, the troops are coming home from Iraq and the war in Afghanistan is coming to an end.

We’re almost through the ice field. Do we really want another Republican at the helm?