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The enduring Titanic: Life lessons gained from the tragedy

Published: Saturday, April 14 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Onion, a satirical publication, may have captured the Titanic best when it recounted the biggest stories of the 20th century. "World's Largest Metaphor Runs into Iceberg," its headline read.

More than any other disaster, the sinking of the Titanic has worked its way into the culture in myriad ways over the last century. People with solutions that don't really address a problem are said to be merely rearranging her deck chairs. Situations that are on a certain trajectory toward failure are said to have already struck the iceberg.

The ship itself has become a constant reminder of the need for humility. It was advertised in a White Star brochure as "designed to be unsinkable," and yet it sank to the ocean floor a little more than 2 and a half hours after striking an iceberg, proving man's ultimate frailty against the forces of nature.

The way it sank also held enough lessons about morality and choices to fuel an entire industry of movies and books. The ship's passengers were segregated according to wealth and class, with the lowest level ultimately having the least chance of rescue. Men had to decide whether to join their wives and children in limited lifeboat space (caused by an improper evacuation) or to face certain death. Some passengers, relying on their faith and a sense of duty, showed remarkable poise. The ship's band members famously continued to play despite their impending deaths.

Meanwhile, the hubris that created claims the ship was unsinkable hindered what could have been critical preparation time for an orderly evacuation, as many believed there was no real danger.

The disaster itself turns 100 this weekend. Not many shipwrecks have had such enduring power. Interestingly, the War of 1812, which included the trauma of enemy soldiers burning the White House, has its 200th anniversary this year and little is being made of it.

For the most part, Hollywood and the 1955 book, "A Night to Remember" are responsible for reviving the fading memories of the Titanic in the mid-20th century. The discovery of the wreck in 1985 took this mostly sentimental interest to new heights. Since then, the momentum has never stopped. Washington Post blogger Joel Achenbach made the observation this week that the Titanic has never been bigger.

It can be easy to forget that the sinking of the Titanic cost more than 1,500 real lives and left many people widowed or fatherless. It can be especially easy to forget that her wreckage is a graveyard that ought to be protected from looters. Using the centennial as a hook, Congress is considering a bipartisan bill that would help to preserve the sacred nature of the ship's remains.

The R.M.S. Titanic Maritime Memorial Preservation Act would make it illegal for any American to disturb the remains or for anyone of any nationality to bring illegally recovered pieces of her into this country. This would add to a law President Reagan signed in 1986 that sought to negotiate an international agreement to make the site a memorial.

The new bill would still allow for legitimate exploration and salvage. Many artifacts already have been recovered and have been put on display. They are instructive of life in a different age, and they help tell the important narrative of the ship and the decisions its passengers had to make.

Those decisions were a microcosm of many of the decisions people have to make during a lifetime. They are the biggest reason the Titanic endures as a metaphor.

The preservation act may be one of the few things Congress could pass during a time of intense political divisions. It ought to do so. Meanwhile, there is nothing wrong with continuing to study a wreck that holds so many lessons.

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