Don't go below the surface if you don't know what you're doing.

OceanGate Titan and the limits of empathy

Social media had plenty of laughs at the expense of the five wealthy passengers on the OceanGate Titan. I haven’t heard this many sick jokes about a disaster since Challenger. I’ve also had a few things to say about it, like almost everyone on TikTok. But isn’t it wrong to make light of someone’s death? And I’m supposed to be someone who believes in empathy. Where is our humanity?

The best explanation for the reaction on social media was this comment on a TikTok video, “It’s no different from the people who try to pet buffalo. I cheer for the buffalo.”

That’s the difference between a tragedy and a Darwin award nominee. It’s when you meet your fate because of your own foolishness and hubris. And the OceanGate Titan, much like the Titanic it was going down to gawk at, was a monument to foolishness and hubris. The untested carbon fiber hull, the Logitech game controller, and most especially its now dead CEO Stockton Rush who claimed “safety just is pure waste” and fired an employee who warned about problems with the vessel.

And there’s the class issue. It’s not just that these very wealthy people spent $250,000 each to get imploded while refugees drowned when their ship capsized. (Let’s be honest. We wouldn’t have even known about that tragedy if we couldn’t use it to contrast with what happened to the Titan.) It’s that the Titan is emblematic of what billionaires have been doing to our society.

The rich and powerful have been able to do whatever they please without consequence. We’ve seen plenty of examples when those with the right connections and enough money can get away with literal murder. We’re also seeing it with the current criminal cases against former president Donald Trump. If we were talking about a Lieutenant Trump with boxes of classified documents in his bathroom, would he be able to go home after his arraignment and cry about it on Truth Social? No, he’d be in Guantanamo right now.

But nature can’t be bought off. There’s no manager you can complain to if water pressure causes the hull to breach. Your handpicked Supreme Court justices can’t overturn the laws of physics and biology. When someone tries to cheat nature and loses, we feel like some karmic justice was done. It’s a throwback to the Roman spectacles when prisoners were thrown to the lions. We feel like nature is setting things right.

We can feel sorry for the families those people left behind. Perhaps they tried to warn their family members not to go, and they regret not stopping them. We can lament the wasted potential and wasted money. And perhaps there was some good they did in their lives that should be remembered and honored.

But also understand the frustration of those of us who don’t have $250,000 to blow on a jaunt to an underwater graveyard. When too many die because they can’t afford medical care. Or have to risk their lives to flee from poverty, war, and draconian laws that criminalize their very existence. Or social services and veterans’ benefits are slashed so billionaires and trillion-dollar corporations can enjoy massive tax cuts. We turn to nature to find the equal justice we don’t find in human society.