The Itaewon tragedy, the sinking of the Titanic, and the new interwar years

The Itaewon tragedy in Seoul has shocked South Korea and the world as it is revealed 153 people died as a result of over-congestion related to Halloween festivities. As the West mourns a boring Halloween, Korea finds itself mourning losses that mirror the tragedy at Travis Scott’s Astroworld festival last year at which 10 died, the Hillsborough disaster in 1980s Britain at which 97 perished at a football match, and now-frequent tragedies affecting pilgrims to Mecca, with deaths numbering in the many hundreds (1,426 people died in the 1990 Mecca tunnel tragedy, while 2,236 people were killed in the 2015 Mina stampede). These comparisons all have a degree of validity as the world reels from this tragedy. If I may, I’d like to draw another comparison that draws specific parallels across historical epochs: the comparison with the sinking of the RMS Titanic in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912, on the eve of World War I (1914-18) and the interwar years in the run-up to World War II (1939-45). I make this comparison not to inspire panic or to distract from the human level of this tragedy. Rather, I wish to emphasise the human dimension of a tragedy which can be easily politicised, and to make a historical point that I think, if taken on board, may help to save and improve lives in the future, and reduce the risk of tragedies occurring that hurt so many of our fellow homo sapiens and lead to so much loss. If I may, I will now explain the comparison between the Itaewon tragedy and the sinking of the Titanic, and the more general link between the early twentieth century and our own time, in between the punctuating events of human history: wars among great powers (or great power wars, for short). Here goes.

Willy Stöwer’s, Untergang der Titanic, depicting the sinking of the Titanic in the early hours of April 15, 1912, after colliding with an iceberg hours before on April 14.

I should add that I have made a comparison like this before. The assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a century after the notable assassination of prominent German foreign minister Walter Rathenau made me think there may be more in common between the 1920s and 2020s than at the time met the eye. The Titanic sunk ten years before 1922, and thus just over one hundred and ten years ago from the time I wrote the article in July. Devastatingly, I found reading reproductions of the the initial reports to the Korean police of the Itaewon tragedy to echo the events of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, a tragedy which led to the deaths of around 1,400 to 1,600 people at least, and which has also been noted as an avoidable accident. There is a more distinct kind of tragedy that befell the United States in 2001, that of the September 11 terrorist attacks which killed 2,977 innocent people. This is distinctive because, like assassinations, the deaths were intended to happen by their perpetrators — but, like accidents, the deaths were on a large scale. People sometimes collapse the distinction between these different kinds of events. That is certainly a bad idea. Each event should be considered in its own right, and the tragedy acknowledged for what it is in its context.

That being said, these events do have in common what Nassim Nicholas Taleb has called the ‘black swan’ effect. We do not see a crisis like the 2008 financial crash until it happens. But is it so rare? If we see similar ‘black swans’ occurring time and again, why do we keep on expecting white swans? Should not we expected the unexpected? Indeed, Ulrich Besk’s Risk Society — on which Taleb’s Black Swan and more recent Antifragile are based — contends that the world we live in now is a world predicated on systemic risk. The integration of global markets has allowed crises to transfer across borders and risks of crises erupting to thereby multiply. We never know what the next crisis is going to be; but we can expect symptoms of the larger global crisis to emerge at local levels, as tragic manifestations of the coming storm.

In this way, the sinking of the Titanic presaged the wars and instability of the first half of the twentieth century are parallels to the current crisis, of which the Itaewon tragedy is a certain flashpoint. Two years after the Titanic sunk, European powers stumbled into war after the assassination of an Austrian aristocrat by a Serbian agitator. Alliances and inter-imperial competition fed the logic of great power conflict with nationalist fervour. The liberal world order came crashing down, and the participants of the great power war known as the Great War (now known as the First World War) were like (as Cambridge historian Christopher Clark put it) sleepwalkers waltzing to their own demise and the deaths of millions of their citizens.

Alas, this is, in qualitative (albeit, thankfully, not quantitative) respects almost exactly akin the nature of the Itaeweon tragedy on October 29, 2022, and the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 14-15, 1912. In both cases, warning signs were raised early on, but these warnings were not fully heeded and thus early preemptive action not taken. It is, however, too easy to label such disasters as avoidable. But I think it is not unreasonable to consider mitigation of disasters as plausible, possible, and — above all — desirable. Ideally, the Titanic would have never hit the iceberg, and so many people would not have been in a crowded environment by 8 pm on October 29 before the crush occurred around 10:15 pm in an alleyway between the station and the Hamilton Hotel. But between those times, what more could have been done? Police were on the way by 9 pm. In the Titanic’s case, it was 11:40 pm when the iceberg struck the side of the ship. At 2:20 am the next day the ship was underwater. Half an hour later the chaotic and slow-moving evacuation to lifeboats began, and by 1:20 am distress signals from the Titanic became increasingly serious and panicked. If these signals had reached such a gone an hour earlier, who knows? How many more could be saved? But panic is not conducive to orderly evacuation or communication. It seems you need reason and an awareness of the severity of the situation to manage this kind of sudden-onset crisis, like a doctor treating cardiac arrest. Too often frail rationality and blind panic are the only responses, oscillating between denial and terror; in a situation in which death is so imminent, it is hard to avoid the fear of death consuming you like a tsunami.

But the Itaewon tragedy was not at sea, and there was nowhere to go to escape. To be trapped on land and for the iceberg to be the wall of death that is one’s fellow humans is incalculably horrifying. The situation was such that people were robbed of their liberty and their security. It is hard to imagine a more horrific way to die.

Horror. Fear. Dread. If we face these things, we may express emotional urgency to solve the problem which gives rise to these predicaments. But if we do not face these things ourselves, we are liable to downplay their severity. Either way, we sleepwalk into a crisis of human design, but not of human intent. It is a crisis that is both accidental and avoidable, but also seemingly inevitable and inexorable. In reading Adam Tooze’s magisterial account of the human dimension of the 2008 financial crisis, Crashed, David Runciman remarked how the event seemed at once inevitable and contingent on random decisions made in the spur of the moment. A complicated catastrophe such as the global economic, security, and health crises of recent years is analogous to the sinking of the Titanic and the tragedy in Itaewon, since such a crisis is at once complex, brutal, and a product of the system in which we live: a world at risk of eating itself alive.

The immediate focus is not on such world-historical questions but on the human dimension of the crisis and the question of responsibility. What could the authorities have done? Why wasn’t more done? Could more have been done? How much more? Who, what, when, how, why — these questions are just and right responses to this tragedy. We should not downplay or diminish reasonable resentment about this tragedy. If investigations lead to trials, and trials lead to convictions, then that is the task of Korea’s legal and political institutions to undertake with the utmost solemnity and impartiality.

As I have argued before, however, the root of such crises is not in any individual or set of individuals. The problems we face are institutional. Individuals are inseparable from the institutions which they follow. To lead an institution is not a task that can be demanded of citizens or officials. It is to be lauded if heroes arise — but rarely are such heroes in a position to make decisions that make difference at scale. Alas, the modern world is unforgiving toward such heroism.

What I would like to grimly note is that the parallels include the prelude to great power war. The First World War happened after decades of interstate competition. The interwar years that followed were mirrored by the interim between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War. The Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War punctuated the equilibrium established after the defeat of Napoleon, while colonial expansion flushed out domestic gluts of wealth and power abroad. But such expansion can only be followed by contraction and the return of the wealthy to political office. Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism positions the ‘political emancipation of the bourgeoisie’ as a critical step of late nineteenth-century imperialism. Meanwhile, the antisemitism of the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s and the populist countermovement to elite domination anticipated later trends in the twentieth century, including the road to tragedy in World War II and the devastation of the Holocaust, a tragedy which is as unique as it is shocking to this day. ‘Never again’ is the motto humanity has adopted since those dark days. Too right.

Another point made by David Runciman is that we will miss the fundamental faults in democracy if we are ‘looking for Hitler’. Too right. To look for a scapegoat is as irrational as the antisemite’s desire to place blame on Jewish people for the crimes of a rapacious economic system which oppresses people of all cultural identifiers. We must not fall prey to the liberal pursuit of ‘enemies of freedom’, as this is too similar to the antisemite’s pursuit of ‘enemies of the people’. Alas, I have seen parallels between the fascistic system of ‘totalitarian-monopoly capitalism’ as described in Neumann’s Behemoth and the dialectic of monopoly takeover and cancel culture in the world today. If we sympathise with the oppressed, what absurdity would it be to take the side of the new oppressors: the professional elite and the class of investor oligarchs they serve? Again, as Arendt argued, an ‘alliance of the elite and the mob’ formed the backbone of totalitarianism. Similarly Chris Bickerton has noted the rise of ‘technopopulism’ in today’s democracies, fusing elite expertise with popular energies in order to entrench, not overcome, the inequalities of today’s world.

There are many seeds of crisis latent in today’s geopolitical economy. The rise of China threatens the U.S.-led order just as the rise of Wilhelmine Germany threatened the U.K.-led order in World War I. The rise of climate change echoes the processes that collapsed ancient empires, in tandem with rising income and wealth inequality resulting from the globalisation of the market economy. The ‘death drive’ at the heart of liberal capitalism, as noted by Byung-Chul Han, remains a powerful force behind the current market mania of mainstream media and institutionalised industries. We are blind to the risks of our world and refuse to confront them. We are lost at sea — and we do not even know we are approaching an iceberg.

It is not too late. In the short-term, better protections and restrictions on large gatherings may avert the particular tragedy at Itaewon. In the longer-term, we need to change the structural relationship between the modern state and capitalism in order to unleash technological development that meets human needs. We need a conservative civic socialism that puts the needs of all people before the needs of corporations and institutions. Our institutions must protect individuals, not put then in harm’s way. And we must build a democratic republic that is not vengeful but caring, while remaining strident in its ambitions and cautious in its hopes for humanity, so as to avoid the utopian delusions that plagued the world before and in between world wars in the last century — delusions which, since the 1990s, continue to affect our world with a certain manic zombification of consciousness. Let us wake up — before it is too late.

My heart goes out to the people of South Korea and to the family and friends of those whose lives were lost in Itaewon, Seoul. May you find peace, and may the names and memories of those who perished endure in the minds of the living, with love evergreen. Rest in peace.

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