One hundred years ago today, 1,517 passengers and crew perished when the great luxury liner Titanic sank in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. One survivor described the panicky scenes as people piled into too few lifeboats and the band bravely played on as "a fancy dress ball in Dante's Hell."
The Titanic lends itself to easy metaphors of hubris and futility; think how often you've heard the line about rearranging its deck chairs. The now-in-3-D James Cameron film uses the catastrophe as an extended exploration of the chilly artificiality of the First Class wealthy versus the warm authenticity of the ragamuffins in steerage (shod feet good, poorly shod feet better!).
To me, on this centennial of the 20th century's most fascinating disaster, what stands out most is the almost unbearable nobility of those who saved others rather than themselves that terrible night.
Countless men could have gotten places on the lifeboats, and calmly chose not to. Their code of conduct prevented them; a kind of honor that can seem almost as old-fashioned as the songs the musicians played in their last doomed moments.
Consider, for instance, John Jacob Astor. The richest man in New York put his pregnant wife on to a lifeboat and then stepped back so that others could find a place. Boys were being prevented from getting on the boats; Astor was seen jamming a woman's hat over a little boy's head and pushing him forward, saving his life. Astor himself went down with the ship.
Then there was millionaire Benjamin Guggenheim who, when he saw the impossible horror of the situation, went back into his stateroom and changed into evening dress. He asked a survivor to tell his wife that, "I played the game straight out to the end. No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward." He and his secretary were last seen calmly drinking brandy; their bodies were never found.
Astor and Guggenheim were only a few of the many remarkable men on Titanic who mastered their own terrors in order to do what they believed was their duty. Most of them weren't in the heroic trades -- they weren't soldiers or firemen or detectives; it wasn't their ship -- but simply men caught unawares by dread circumstance. That they should conduct themselves with honor, as gentlemen, mattered more to them than life itself.
Does this exist, a hundred years later? Not if you judge from, say, the captain of the Costa Concordia, who abandoned the passengers on his sinking cruise ship this past winter to save his Italian skin. The pop-culture triumph of the self-indulgent, failing-to-launch slacker dude doesn't bode well either.
And yet -- this very week, we saw an act of gallantry every bit as stunning and affecting as anything that happened on the Titanic.
As perhaps everyone knows now, Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J., dashed into a burning building and saved the life of a woman who would almost certainly have died without his daring intervention. There was a moment of struggle, but it wasn't that Booker couldn't decide whether to go in, it was because his own security detail was trying to prevent him.
Most of us will never, thank God, have to choose whether to run into a burning building. Most of us will never face the agony of taking or forgoing a seat in a lifeboat. But it is devoutly to be hoped that, like certain brave men of the past and present, we would have the dignity and courage to do the right thing.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.