By Rabbi Donna Berman, PhD
The Talmud tells us that to destroy one life is to destroy an entire world. In other words, each human life transcends the usual metrics of longevity, wealth, influence, status. Every life, the Rabbis are saying, changes the world and is invaluable in ways, seen and unseen, and has impact for generations to come.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that statement since that awful week, at the end of June, when two tragedies occurred: The drowning of at least 600 immigrants from South Asia and the Middle East who were trying to reach Europe on a fishing boat, the Adriana. The boat was dangerously, inhumanely, unimaginably overcrowded with people fleeing horrific conditions, including extreme poverty and violence in their home countries, risking their lives for the chance to start a new life.
The other tragedy was the implosion of “The Titan,” a submersible, killing five people, billionaires in search of a unique experience, the viewing of the wreckage of the Titanic. Each of those deaths was heart-breaking, warranting compassion for the pain inflicted, for the grief of the families and loved ones of those who were lost. As the Rabbis teach us, multiple worlds were lost that week.
Many people have touched on the unequal treatment of these two events, but deeper analysis is warranted. If we do not mine the lessons implicit in what happened and our reactions to it, then these deaths become even more tragic, devoid of the greater meaning they carried. At least let the legacy of these people be access to greater understanding of what these events say about who we are compared to who we think we are and who we want to be.
There is no comparison between the inordinate amount of media coverage, the international attention and, almost universal concern aroused in response to the submersible’s disappearance, not to mention the vast resources expended to find it as opposed to the modicum of attention and resources directed towards saving the 750 people on that ill-fated boat. What does it say about us that 5 very rich people on a thrill ride captured our hearts and minds, while 750 impoverished, desperate people of color were virtually ignored?
It is worth noting that those on the submersible were going to look at the remains of the Titanic. The Titanic, too, was emblematic of the role that class and race play in the unequal treatment of human beings. The lower classes were in the hold, while the rich were on the upper floors of the boat. Accordingly, first class passengers were the last to be impacted by the flooding of the ship and the first to gain access to lifeboats. Not surprisingly, proportionately, many more first-class guests survived. According to Britannica, approximately a quarter of third-class passengers lived, as opposed to a third of first-class passengers.
That last week of June, something else happened that was barely noticed, overshadowed as it was by the fate of the submersible. The International African American Museum opened in Charleston, South Carolina. Set on a site of a former shipping pier where, in the 18th and 19th centuries, tens of thousands of captured African people landed and began a life in which they endured unspeakable brutality. The architecture of the building suggests a slave ship. Holland Cotter, of the New York Times writes, “Beneath and around [the building] is a public park that the museum has named the African American Ancestors Memorial Garden. It’s clearly conceived as a tribute to the victims of the tortuous Atlantic Ocean crossing known as The Middle Passage and specifically to those who arrived, dead or alive, at this very spot. Ghostly images—life-size silhouettes of bodies packed together, shoulder to shoulder, as if in a ship’s hold—appear to be carved into the garden’s pavement.”
According to psychotherapists, a sense of claustrophobia overcame many of us as we contemplated those trapped on the submersible. How many of us feel that way when we see photographs of people impossibly packed on ships as they attempt to get to freedom or when we think of captured people who were chained in the hold of a boat for months at a time, as the ship crossed the Atlantic, without adequate air, water, no sunlight and no room to move? Why are our hearts so much more open to those with privilege and power?
The museum is a reminder, too, that the sea, and water in general, has been the site of some of humankind’s most egregious crimes, some of its most horrific violations. It is a mirror of the race and class divide we have grown accustomed, immured to, as evidenced by the extreme difference in our reactions to the events of the week of June 19th. Who can afford to live by bodies of water? Who is welcomed into communities by lakes, rivers, the sea? Why were people of color in Flint, Michigan knowingly allowed to be poisoned by contaminated water? We are reminded of how the waters that flooded New Orleans by Katrina unequally impacted Black neighborhoods because of inferior construction, because of the difference in the response to their needs versus the needs of white, privileged people. In the 1990s, Haitians were forced to leave their homeland, and, dubbed “boat people,” faced being turned back by the U.S. Coast Guard or were kept in these “floating detention centers controlled by government agencies of the United States and the United Kingdom…where ‘ghost prisoners’—individuals denied protective anchoring to a sovereign homeland—languish in the international waters of the Indian Ocean.”
There are 8 historically black beaches, established because African American people were not allowed at beaches that whites frequented. There is a long history of Black people not being allowed to swim in pools with White people, in this country. As Victoria W. Wolcott writes, “Swimming pools and beaches were among the most segregated and fought over spaces in the North and the South. White stereotypes of Blacks as diseased and sexually threatening served as the foundation of this segregation.”
The difference between the tragedy of the Titan and the tragedy of the ship carrying the immigrants and the ships carrying enslaved people is really this: Those on the Titan died untimely deaths, a risk they knowingly and willingly took, perhaps thinking that their wealth and power inoculated them against such a disaster. A cynical Twitter post by Professor Laleh Khalili captures that sentiment: “…a libertarian billionaire ethos of ‘we are above all laws, including physics’ took the Titan down. And the unequal treatment of this and the migrant boat catastrophe is unspeakable.”
In contrast, the deaths of those on the fishing boat in the Mediterranean and those who perished on the slave ships crossing the Atlantic, people without wealth or power–at least as those things are defined in a capitalist society–were caused by a cruel system that values money over human life.
Many think that water pollution began with the Industrial Revolution. I would argue that the life-giving waters of the ocean were first violated by the sheer brutality of the Middle Passage, by the ships that carried captured human beings as cargo, as things, as objects from which to profit. The horror of human beings doing this to other human beings continues to poison our institutions—our educational system, our business practices, our policing, our policies.
We are, as Christina Sharpe argues, dwelling in the wake of those slave ships, in what she calls the “afterlives of slavery.” “Slavery’s brutal arithmetics are precursive to those of the Holocaust,” she writes. They are precursive, too, of a world in which we are able to turn a blind eye to the suffering of hundreds of people of color packed inhumanely and dangerously onto a dinghy and to the death at sea to which they were condemned. When cruelty is allowed and accepted, more cruelty, in various forms, will inevitably follow. It is a terrifying domino effect.
We, now, find ourselves presented with the opportunity to look into our own hearts to, honestly and forthrightly, examine our own values and priorities as they were demonstrated in our reaction to the two tragedies of the week of June 19th. If we choose to do this, it will be humbling work, but work that will yield vital insights about ourselves and our society, about all we ignore that perpetuate the inequities we claim to abhor. It will, hopefully, goad us into greater vigilance and action.
In this way, those on the submersible no less than those on the dinghy, will be part of the vital process of waking us up to the wake in which we are living. I can think of no more powerful memorial to the hundreds of worlds we recently lost to the sea.