As contrasts go, it’s hard to find a starker one than two vessels lost a few days apart: the Adriana, an overloaded Libyan fishing boat carrying hundreds of refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, desperately trying to reach European shores; and the Titan, a tiny submersible carrying five people and one teenager, with a reported combined worth of over £2 billion, on a recreational dive to the wreck of the Titanic.
The rescue of the Adriana started only once the manifestly unsafe boat capsized, and involved only a handful of vessels and no aircraft, despite being almost within sight of Europe. It was called off after less than 24 hours. The search for the Titan was a multinational effort that lasted almost five days - the majority of them despite the US Navy having already picked up the sound of the implosion in real time. It involved the US Coast Guard, the Canadian and French militaries, and private companies hauling state-of-the-art detection and rescue gear to a remote spot in the North Atlantic.
But it was the coverage contrast that riled the commentariat on both sides of the political map: the Adriana sinking dominated headlines for 48 hours at the utmost; the Titan, dominated news across all media formats for a week, with almost every major outlet running liveblogs of the rescue operation, despite there being virtually nothing to report.
From the Left, commentators pointed out the hypocrisy of the attention gap, attributing it to racism, classism, anti-immigration politics and media bias. From the Right, commentators made a point of chastising their progressive counterparts for “using a teenager slowly suffocating to death at the bottom of the ocean” to make a political point. (Needless to say, this soon deteriorated into endless ad hominem attacks and culture war mudslinging, drifting further and further away from the issues at hand and the victims of either catastrophe.)
There are, of course, many reasons why the two disasters got such different attention, and most of them do have to do with race, class and media bias. The European public has become quite desensitised to people drowning in an attempt to reach our shores - gone are the days of 2015, where the picture of a single drowned toddler on a Turkish beach helped spur a major immigration about-turn in Europe’s most powerful nation. The people on the boat are many and therefore anonymous; the people on the sub are few and identifiable, and therefore easier to humanise and to take an interest in.
And then, of course, the people on the boat were poor and brown, whereas the majority of the people on the sub were white and/or rich. Even then, it’s been instructive to see how much more in-depth coverage, or even mentions, have been allotted to the white passengers than to the Pakistani father and son on the vessel. Empathy is a finite resource, and every little degree of alienation that helps us to switch our attention away from vicariously experiencing someone else’s trauma helps; this mechanism has been deliberately honed and expanded over centuries of constructing white supremacy.
There is, however, an even more important gap at play: accountability.
A deliberate disaster
Within hours of news of the Titan going missing, clips, quotes and documents were dug up showing the submarine was long criticised by deep submergence experts to be a blatant, cavalier gamble with safety. There was some attention to the delay between the loss of communications with the submersible and the alerting of the US Coast Guard, but criticism and calls for accountability went further and deeper than the immediate responders.
We soon learned Oceangate operated outside regulatory areas and openly refused to submit its craft to certification even once - never mind seasonally, as is the practice by many other deep-diving submersibles. And in contrast to those other crafts, the Titan was built out of composite carbon fibre - a material far better suited for flight than for diving under intense pressure. It is likely the operator will face costly litigation that will reshape the regulatory landscape for this particular brand of extreme tourism.
The coverage of the Adriana, by contrast, was in the tone reserved for natural disasters, with the accountability angle focused mostly on the action - or inaction - of the specific Greek Coast Guard boats that intercepted the vessel before it capsized. Far less attention was devoted to those who created the situation that resulted in hundreds of men, women and children cramming onto this manifestly unsuitable vessel to begin with.
It should be the other way around - not least because of one crucial distinction: intent.
The loss of the Titan appears to be at least partly the result of cavalier adventurism and of greed - of a luxury tourism company cutting corners in the hope disaster would not strike.
The loss of Adriana is the result of European migration policies crafted in the hope that disaster will strike time and time again. These range from forcing airlines to keep asylum seekers from boarding cheap and affordable commercial flights into Europe, to the pumping of immense budgets into maritime and border surveillance, to the criminalisation of volunteer rescuers.
And here, too, greed and profit play a role: the budget for Frontex, the European agency in charge of guarding Europe’s external borders, has topped €750,000,000 in 2022, with a vast chunk of it going to private sector companies.
More blatantly still, the European Union has been sinking cash into the violent and corrupt Libyan coast guard to incentivise it to intercept refugee boats before they become a European Problem - and turning a blind eye when some of those intercepted refugees ended up in literal slave markets. And far under this vast ecosystem of trade in human suffering built by salaried Western bureaucrats are the bottom feeders - the human traffickers who fleece thousands and thousands of pounds from people who should be able to pay a few hundred quid to board a flight and have their claims processed on arrival.
We know the name of the company that designed and operated the submarine that took five people to untimely and unnecessary deaths last Sunday. We know virtually nothing - not even the names - of the civil servants and consultants who designed and still enforce the European migration policy that has cost 3,800 lives in 2022 alone.
Perhaps they should be famous too.