by William H. Benson
April 8, 1999
The Titanic departed the harbor at Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, and five days later she lay on the ocean floor. Of the 2340 passengers and crew, only 745, mostly women and children, survived to see New York City’s harbor, and so 1595 people perished.
Speeding arrogantly along at 21 knots through an icefield, the Titanic struck an iceberg. Those on board felt only a slight tremble and not a jolt and were so unconcerned that they chose to remain in their staterooms to dress for dinner. But the much-praised water-tight compartments proved useless once the sea water began pouring through the torn metal fabric, and then, horrified as tragic realization dawned, the people understood that too-few life boats were available, only half as many as needed for the entire crew and passengers.
Choices were quickly made. Woman and children were first. John Jacob Astor gallantly helped his ailing new bride into a lifeboat, lit a cigarette, and then proceeded to help other women into the lifeboats. But tragically in a panic the men failed to fill the lifeboats to capacity, and many needlessly drowned. John Jacob Astor went down with the ship, and so did the captain, most of the officers, and oddly a number of wives who chose to stay and to hold hands with their husbands. Stoically, the band played on.
Within hours the passenger vessel disappeared beneath the surface, not to be found until September 1, 1985. Using new undersea robots equipped with television cameras, the oceanographer Robert D. Ballard explored the Titanic lying 12,000 feet deep south of the Newfoundland shoreline.
Few, if any, absolutes exist in life. The potential for great achievement into the beyond equals that for great sorrow and tragedy into the depths. People live their lives trusting and hoping and thinking that “this will not ever happen to me”, “my neighbors will never treat me badly”, “my enemies will never force me out of my home”, “the engineers have made sufficient precautions”, and “a holocaust will never happen”. Such hopeful thinking does not prepare a person for the moment when a madman, like Slobodan Milosevic, walks in and strikes hard.
The Christians, Muslims, Croats, Serbs, and Albanians have lived side by side for centuries, and as long as a superior power, such as the former Soviet Union, ruled with a heavy hand, peace endured. But with self-rule came Balkanization and the release of pent-up hatreds between the nationalities. Prejudices rallied around the slogan of “ethnic cleansing”. Killing erupted.
The ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo have lived in their villages as simple and poor folks, but hopeful. Suddenly, without warning the Serbs have hounded and harrassed them and told them to get out. The Serbs want Kosovo. The unthinkable is happening. Choices must be quickly made. Stay and fight and be annihilated, or give up and run for shelter. For the tens of thousands daily streaming with their wives and children and parents into neighboring Albania and Macedonia, the choice is easy. Find a “lifeboat” and get to it quickly.
What does the typical person do when informed that he or she has only a handful of hours to gather up belongings and prepare to escape? “This boat is sinking!” “The Serbs are coming to kill you!” Tragedy has hit the innocent repeatedly during this twentieth century, and quick choices were made: stay with your husband/wife and hold hands, jump on the lifeboat, or run away. Fortunately, this time the U. S. is not acting like the band aboard the Titanic, oblivious to what was happening– insisting on playing music and doing nothing to help.