Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Reflections on Cowardice

The sinking of the Costa Concordia is horrifying. Such an event is unthinkable in our high-tech age (though I'm sure the same was said in 1912). As more details are released, the story gets even sadder.

Today, CNN published an article with excerpts of a transcript documenting the conversation between the captain of the Concordia, Francesco Schettino, and the port authority.

Reading the transcripts, it is obvious that Schettino was confused, disorganized, and most likely scared for his life. In his conversations with the commandant of the port authority, Schettino contradicts himself, obfuscates, and asks questions of which he should know the answer. For example, when the commandant inquires about the number of dead bodies found and Schettino asks him "How many?", Commandant De Falco shoots back, "You should be the one telling me this... What do you want to do? Do you want to go home? Now go back on the stem and tell me what to do..."

Schettino's inability to return to the ship after receiving a direct order to do so reeks of that most despicable of traits: cowardice.

A leader-- a brave leader-- leads from the front. A leader-- a Captain-- does not abandon his charge. Not only did Schettino (and all his officers) abandon ship with "about one hundred" people still on board, he refused to go back and coordinate the evacuation after receiving an order to do so.

Here's the rub: can we blame him?

To what extent is cowardice a decision? To what extent is it controllable? Did Schettino make the decision to abandon ship? In such a chaotic environment, with thousands of people running about, the electricity flickering on and off, is it possible for a human being to make an actual decision? Or, in these circumstances, are decisions trumped by survival instincts? A fellow crew member's "Let's get out of here!" is not taken as a suggestion-- it's a packaged and ready-to-use decision that requires no thought whatsoever. One simple "does". One simply acts. One gets out of there.

This brings up the point about the fate of Schettino. Is cowardice punishable? Is it just to punish somebody for actions over which they had no control? The military thinks so. Acts of cowardice are punishable by court martial and its associated penalties. In Schettino's case, there is no established penalty for abandoning ship (according to the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jan/17/costa-concordia-questions-maritime-lawhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jan/17/costa-concordia-questions-maritime-law), though he is being detained for possible charges of manslaughter as well. Is that just?

Schettino's cowardice led to his tragic indecision and their fatal consequences (more bodies were found today). Can and should he be prosecuted for it? Read this blurb from Scott Huler's blog, where he is writing about the Penn State abuse scandal and the inaction of those who witnessed the abuse of athletes:

“The thing that makes it so horrific to us,” says Ditto, “is ironically exactly what makes us throw the brakes on.” Ditto studies bias and error in human decision-making; Strom-Gottfried spends her time interviewing, as she describes them, “whistleblowers who have had episodes of moral cowardice.” I spoke to them – and other psychologists – because as the orgy of finger-pointing and recrimination expanded, I couldn’t find information about what seemed obvious to me. That uncertainty, horror, self-doubt, and garden-variety confusion – to say nothing of denial, fear of repercussions, and hierarchy status – make the witnesses’ actions predictable, understandable, and, at bottom, fundamentally human.

I don't know what the correct answer is. To me, it seems unfair to jail somebody for acting in a very human, and predictably human, fashion. How much of our disgust for cowardly actions is a search for justice, at the expense of the cowardly? How much of our need for closure or a need to place blame informs our decision to punish the cowardly?

Then again, such actions can't go unpunished. Schettino cannot be given another command. The victims' families cannot see Schettino go on leading a normal life as if nothing happened, or, worse, as if the event didn't affect him. In this respect, Schettino must be punished. It has to happen, because the alternative cannot happen. Recognizing the ambiguity, however, is important-- and unsettling.

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