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Latter-Day Lord Jim: The Demons That Will Follow Concordia Captain Schettino

Essay: As the death toll climbs in Italy's cruise ship disaster, Concordia captain Francesco Schettino must answer charges that he abandoned his post in the hour of greatest need. It's a tale as old as the sea itself, where courage or fe

Schettino interviewed three days after the accident (ITN)
Schettino interviewed three days after the accident (ITN)
Pierangelo Sapegno

Maybe Capitain Francesco Schettino will spend the rest of his life as Lord Jim did. The captain of the Costa Concordia cruise liner, which crashed and capsized off the coast of Tuscany, might end up moving from one place to the next in a futile attempt to escape the demons of shame and regret.

In Joseph Conrad's novel, Lord Jim, the captain fled on a lifeboat, abandoning his ship in a storm. Put on trial and degraded, he escaped with his dishonor without being able to forgive himself for his own mistakes, only finding redemption at the end in a faraway land. In movies and novels, characters tend to ultimately demonstrate their heroism at the end. Francesco Schettino will have to face his own ghosts. But as it was for Lord Jim, nothing will ever be the same.

Some mistakes change your life for good. People's mistakes, like their sins, are always hard to judge. Sometimes fear, a feeling, a sudden thought, wind up determining the mistake. At the end, an error is like a sin. Its consequences increase its gravity. Escaping and showing cowardice are judged more seriously because they are part of us, and of our own weakness. We all know that fighting them each day is not easy. Someone else's cowardice weakens all of us. The cowardice of a commander is simply humiliating.

Back in World War II, General Giacomo Zanussi wrote in his journal after the King of Italy Vittorio Emanuele III and his generals had abandoned Rome, having surrendered to American and British allies on September 8, 1943, leaving the city in the hands of Germans. "It is after 6," Zanussi wrote. "Some soldiers are still on the sidewalk, waving in front of the headquarters of the Ministries of War and of the General staff. But the others, the majority, are staying as they are. Their berets are on askew, their faces are dark, their hands are in their pockets. They can smell the fleeing of their commanders." That sin would cause the death of 1,300 soldiers and citizens, while a loud and raucous line of 250 officials dash off to the Pescara harbor to secure a place aboard the ship which was set to sail away to safety in the southern city of Brindisi.

Duty in the everyday

Among all the many actions, there is always an action that is more obviously different. It is not only a matter of the dignity of being brave and of the cowardice in running away.

The Concordia's cabin service director Manrico Giampedroni, who saved the lives of many people aboard the sinking ship, says that he did only what he had to do. He is lying on a hospital bed, his hand and arm are bandaged, his leg in a cast. "It was my duty," he says, almost with a smile. "I think that the captain did his own duty too." The sense of duty, and the effort to do your own job every day will elevate you. It is not as easy as it seems. Many of us are able to do it. But they are the best of us. You cannot make a mistake.

The Italian admiral Persano in 1866 lost the naval battle of Lissa against Austrian captain Wilhelm von Tegetthoff. He came back to Italy announcing a victory. But the news bulletins of the battle proved him wrong, describing the Italians retreat, the sinking of two armored ships and death of 620 of his men. The Austrians had only 38 casualties and did not lose any ships. You have to do your duty until the end. No one understood the reason of Persano's huge and useless lie. Everyone thought that if he had made such a mistake, he was trying to hide another one which was even bigger.

We still cannot draw a final judgment on Francesco Schettino's biggest mistake. Others, no doubt, are already judging. As the soldiers watched the king as he escaped, we can simply look and wait. We did not see Schettino's face among the desperate tourists aboard his ship, the Costa Concordia, nor among the brave faces of the rescuers who are still trying to save some lives from the sea. Those faces belong to the every day people, who accept the duty of their lives. Until the very end.

Read the original article in Italian

Photo - ITN

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