The last living American survivor of the Titanic died last week. Lillian Gertrud Asplund was 5 when the luxury liner sank after hitting an iceberg in 1912. Her father and three brothers were lost. She, another brother, and her mother survived.
At death, Asplund was 99. In reading her obituary, one could not escape the feeling that her entire life was shadowed by this tragedy. Is such a thing true more broadly? Does her passing mark the end of the Titanic story? What was that story anyway?
Many ships have been ill-fated. Why did the fate of that particular one so grip the world's imagination? The Hollywood blockbuster of a few years ago brought the story to a new generation, but its pins were already deeply planted in human consciousness. Why? The Titanic, as the unsinkable vessel that sank on its maiden voyage, became an ultimate symbol of hubris, a cautionary tale warning that human inventiveness can always be trumped by nature.
But the Titanic took on mythic significance only because of what soon followed in its wake. It was in hindsight that the catastrophe of The Great War took on the implicit character of the unforeseen obstacle into which Europe crashed.
The unbridled optimism of the Enlightenment, a belief in the ''unsinkability" of progress, drove full speed into the abyss of trench warfare. A generation of European males was lost, and for what? Kaiser? King? The Archduke of Sarajevo? A dynamic set by arms merchants?
After the fact, what came to be called World War I could only be understood as an act of civilizational suicide. For year after year, Germany, Britain, France, and other nations sent their very futures ''over the top" into the maw of machine guns that refused to falter. It was as if the man at the helm of the Titanic sailed into the thick of icebergs he had been warned were certainly there. The story of the ship became one of pure foreboding.
The entry of the United States into the war was decisive, but it remained marginal to the agonies and the destructiveness, and so inherited the century. In America, it seemed possible to regard the Titanic tragedy as a morality tale meant for Europe, just as one could think of The Great War as the death rattle of the ''Old World."
That sense of relatively immune superiority was only confirmed by World War II. Though US losses were greater than before, so was the benefit when the ''New World" emerged uniquely whole, soon to become the engine of the global economy. Commanding from the bridge of ''the West," American leaders went full speed ahead into a sea of icebergs, but now the true hazards had been created by the geniuses who had built the ship. The icebergs this time were thousands upon thousands of nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union joined the United States in the manufacture of an ever growing danger. The stage for a second act of civilizational suicide was set.
By sheer dumb luck the USS America navigated the Cold War without hitting one of the nuclear icebergs, but the helmsmen credited their own skill while slaphappy passengers celebrated -- again -- a claim to unsinkability. We had ''won" the Cold War, and now we were the ''indispensable nation." Not even awareness of the dangers posed by unmoored nuclear weapons -- ''loose nukes" -- made America's geniuses see the hazard as applying to them. That alone is why, against reason and law, Washington can maintain its fleet of nuclear icebergs even now. Tragedy, nuclear or otherwise, is a fate awaiting other peoples, not Americans, who remain the last Enlightenment optimists.
Oddly, the blow of 9/11 reinforced this exceptionalism. The anguish of that day was real, but it equaled neither what other nations suffered in the world wars, nor what the earth narrowly survived in the Cold War. Nor does it compare to what lies dead ahead if the captains of our ship hold course -- ''Steady as she goes."
Looming obstacles include an Islamic world enflamed by American belligerence, Russians feeling pushed into a new Cold War, China in an arms race, and a demonized Iran acting -- no surprise -- like a demon. All of these threats have their stimulus, if not their origins, in the old hubris of the New World.
What America has done over the last six years makes plain that the lesson of the Titanic, even with its last US survivor gone, has yet to be learned in Washington. It is 1912 again.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© 2006 The Boston Globe