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The Titanic Crisis

April 17, 2008

I’d like to thank those of you who were able to attend our April 16 presentation, “The Titanic Crisis”, held at MCNY to commemorate the 96th anniversary of the Titanic disaster.

While it’s true that emergency management and homeland security specialists draw upon the experiential sciences in devising preparedness, response, and recovery protocols, it’s equally true that there’s a metaphysical approach to both fields – an approach that thus far is only (forgive the pun) the tip of the iceberg. As part of the presentation, I posited a “mythical” approach to the Titanic’s symbolic role in shaping many of the concepts emergency managers and homeland security professionals use today. Despite embodying some of the finest and most innovative technology of its day, the Titanic didn’t prove to be unsinkable, or even “virtually unsinkable”, and the ship’s demise was as shocking a technological failure as it was a human event that claimed the lives of over 1,500 men, women, and children. The seeming inevitability of the Titanic’s sinking (due, in large part, to the “incident pit” in which the ship found itself) leads us to wonder if there were factors (some actual and tangible, some symbolic) that influenced the final outcome, but remain specifically unknown to us today. This understanding formed the metaphysical thread that I used to link our interpretation of the Titanic disaster as a technological failure, and perhaps a failure of a larger and more amorphous magnitude. Some may contend that this failure is societal or cultural in nature, while others may apply a more philosophical or even religious patina to the events of April 14-15, 1912. To my mind, the ship’s builders and operators traded the metaphysical good sense of objectives for that technological hubris often mistaken as capability.

It’s well known that technology is good only when designed and applied with wisdom. I use the word “wisdom” guardedly because many aspects of emergency management and homeland security “wisdom” remain undefined and ill-used. Nearly seven years after the events of September 11, 2001, and just five years after the formation of the United States Department of Homeland Security, we’re still in the process of wresting from our experience, our knowledge, and our desires the metaphysical underpinnings of the emergency management and homeland security disciplines. Like the Titanic’s builders and operators, we perhaps limit our concepts and practices to what has been defined by past experience, or suits our more immediate objectives, such as commerce or political power. The Titanic wasn’t built to prove or disprove the wisdom or reality of an “unsinkable ship.” It was built to generate a profit by carrying passengers and cargo across the North Atlantic Ocean. And while the vessel was publicized as being “virtually sinkable”, this was a mere marketing tool, a reassuring nod to the seagoing public that the ship’s creators knew from past experience that crossing the Atlantic was always a dangerous business. Here we see the concept of risk turned into appeal, and that appeal (it was hoped) transformed into increased passenger patronage and profits. I’m reminded of an aeronautical engineer who once remarked that they could build an aircraft that would never crash, but it would never fly, either. Along a similar vein, had the Titanic truly been constructed (as they believed it had) to be unsinkable, it probably wouldn’t have floated – which it did…for a while.

But it’s within this paradox, this often tangential tension between reality and symbolism…between preparedness and fantasy…that the metaphysical aspects of emergency management and homeland security exist. There’s a body of knowledge regarding these two fields that influences our plans and actions, but is of yet unknown to us. It can be said that we’ll know more after the next disaster occurs, and from an experiential viewpoint, the point is a valid one. Of the two fields, emergency management is presently geared more toward recovery than either preparedness or response; and when it does engage the anticipatory approach, it’s in order to determine the parameters of a particular type of recovery. And while homeland security’s mission is characterized by a more “anticipatory” approach than is emergency management, its doctrinal (and conceptual) foundations remain unfinished.

Even nearly a century after its loss, the Titanic continues to provide intellectual fodder for the EM and HLS communities. This source material, paid for that night by the sheer terror experienced by 2,200 people, inspires us to learn its many bitter lessons – one of which is that there’s a lot less to technology (or capabilities) than one might think, and much more to “attitude” or objectives than one may know.

Professor Longshore

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Posted by Disaster Central in Evacuation, Homeland Security, MCNY EDM Program. Comments Off on The Titanic Crisis

Disaster Central is also a resource for information relating to MCNY’s MPA program in Emergency Management and Homeland Security, as well as providing insight and commentary on the topics of Disaster Management, Emergency Management and Homeland Security.

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