The recently departed Rabbi Harold Kushner became famous for his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, but he also wrote another lesser-known volume titled When All You Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough. The second book did not do as well as the first, but the title came to mind this week in the aftermath of the OceanGate tragedy which cost the lives of five people intent on seeing the wreckage of the Titanic 12,000 feet under the surface of the North Atlantic.
The chance to dive to those depths to see a ship that sank over 100 years ago created an opportunity for two forces to benefit from each other.
First, the OceanGate company rightly assumed that there are uber-rich people in the world who like adventure and can afford to pay significant fees to press the limits of human technology and endurance.
Second, the fact that there are people in the world who, to use the vernacular, “have everything,” health, wealth, and the resources to do whatever comes into their heads. Many also have an urge to experience that which is not available to the majority of the world’s population.
The ill-fated dive of the OceanGate submersible, on June 18, epitomized the confluence of both of these conditions by providing an experience of questionable risk and safety which had been the subject of numerous earlier safety warnings from recognized deep dive specialists.
All of that is now known, as is the fact that from Sunday to Thursday, June 18-22, a veritable multi-national “unified command” of ships, aircraft, deep sea diving equipment and personnel from the governments of the United States, Canada, France, and Britain spent untold hundreds of millions of dollars in a search and rescue operation that, from the start, had no hope whatsoever of finding the submersible’s passengers alive.
Now no one is positing that this effort should not have been made. Human lives were at stake and as long as there was some hope that while the craft’s oxygen supply was still theoretically sufficient to sustain life, the search had to continue. That is a given.
Who pays for the search & rescue for the Titan submersible, other trips for the super-rich?
Nevertheless, in retrospect, who now pays the costs associated with the search operation? Basically, the governments of the four countries involved, which means the cost is absorbed by the citizens of those countries through their taxes. However, those governments and their citizens did not knowingly agree to cover such costs should something go wrong, while the odds of a catastrophic event were certainly infinitely higher than the risks we all take each day when we venture out of our homes to engage the world.
Is there a way to deal with this sort of thing in the future? I believe there is.
If companies like OceanGate, SpaceX, or Virgin Galactic for example – who sell their thrills to the super wealthy for exorbitant sums – want to engage in this kind of activity, then they should bear some of the financial responsibility for the costs associated with subsequent search and rescue operations – should those be needed.
In a word, in order to get a license to operate that kind of business, such companies should be required to sign a pre-disaster agreement, taking responsibility for the costs for potential future costs. Coupled with that document should be a requirement that they post a surety bond for some large sum of money; and that their promotional materials indicate that they are classified as a business whose patrons run the risk of death in a catastrophic event.
I have no doubt that making this a government requirement before such businesses are issued an operating license would make entrepreneurs think multiple times about engaging in this kind of activity and give pause to the customers as well, before they plop down a quarter of a million dollars for the “privilege” of putting their lives and those of their loved ones at risk of death.
As for those for whom everything they had was not enough, I recall the words of American Gen. George S. Patton: “Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash.”
This lesson, sadly, was not learned by those who perished. May their memories be a blessing.
The writer has lived in Jerusalem for 39 years and is CEO of the business consultancy Atid EDI Ltd.; the 2023 recipient of the Chicago Board of Jewish Education’s Rambam Award; former board chair of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies; past national president of the AACI and chairperson of Jerusalem’s Ohel Nechama Congregation.