Many years ago I was in an office building in which a crazed man gunned down people several floors above. It was a terrible event and local media (and later national as well) all reported on it. Many months later an employee of the firm circulated a memo that, in part, made fun of the event. I was one of the few who challenged him about doing it, others simply ignored it or threw the memo into the trash bins. He got indignant, as I recall, when challenged about using the event as a joke (and using office resources to do it). At any rate, it forced management to put an end to sending out personal interoffice correspondence without approval. That was in the days before the Internet, email, tweets, and other social media that now permeate our world.
The events of 9/11 were seared into many who saw what happened that day. To this day the national media hides some of the more graphic sides, namely of people throwing themselves out of buildings since the choices was either burning/choking to death or a quick end by leaping out of the building. Then Mayor Rudy Giuliani recalls hearing this thudding sound outside of the building he was in. It was the sound of bodies hitting the ground. Now you can find this information, some are included in documentaries or in still photographs from that day. But generally media avoids showing this because of how awful it was. Few jest about what happened and jokes about 9/11 are generally avoided. And comics who go that route take a serious risk of alienating their audience and ending gigs lined up.
Titanic, because it has become iconic, has its own special place in history and culture. 1500 people died because the British Board of Trade never bothered to update regulations on lifeboats and because of complacency. Captain Smith never considered icebergs a problem and despite ice warnings, moved Titanic through an ice field at night when visibility was limited due to lack of moonlight and binoculars for the lookouts. So many what ifs can be pointed out that could have changed the outcome that night. Whole families were lost and families separated forever. What ought to have been a glorious day of celebration when Titanic arrived in New York was one of great sadness when the survivors came ashore. And the only thing left of Titanic were the lifeboats.
That happened in 1912, 101 years ago. Last year saw a major remembrance of the sinking and how still Titanic is part of our culture. Despite that you see things like tacky Titanic shaped ice cube molds. Or Titanic slides that kids slide down not understanding its implication. Then there are t-shirts out there that say “Titanic Swim Team.” And finally what drew the ire of many was Red Bull’s advert that made light of the tragedy. Red Bull says it was just in fun and certainly that was their intent. They got away with it because the uproar was light. They got what they wanted, publicity for an energy drink but it comes at price. The price being it turns off a lot of people who may never buy Red Bull again. It is one thing to do a show like MASH and poke fun at war but show its serious side but another to mock. Hogan’s Heroes was a show meant to get laughs out of showing the prisoners running a major underground operation right under the watchful eyes of Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz. Most people do not realize that it was purposeful to depict the Germans as idiots. And Werner Klemperer, whose father was forced to leave Germany when Hitler came to power, demanded that of the producers.
Some argue that over time we can be desensitized to past events we have no connection to.There is a point to this and sometimes it is ignorance or lack of empathy. When either occurs, it becomes all too easy to simply look at past tragedies and not care much. And that makes it possible for people to make light of tragedies and come up with dumb products or t-shirts. It means that those who do care have to work harder to remind people not to forget the human cost of the events they trivialize.