No matter how one looks at it, it wasn’t Italy’s finest hour.  Not even Gabrielle d’Annunzio, poet, patriot, propagandist, and protofascist, could spin this into a maritime Titanic-like drama.

Once the Costa Concordia hit a rock off the Tuscan coast, the behavior of the passengers and crew became an adverb, as in cowardly.  This much we know.  But knowing Italy—a country that successfully switched sides in both world wars—factual truth will never emerge.  The eternal glories and failings of human nature have always played leading parts in Italy’s long and magnificent history.  Heroes turn into baddies and vice versa, defeats into victories, burlesque into opera.  Italy, they say, is more of an idea than a country, and they are not far off.  Where else would the innocent mistress of a benevolent dictator be shot and hanged upside down by men who pride themselves as lovers and protectors of the weaker sex?  Never mind.  I could go on forever.

When I first heard the news of the ship sinking off an island I have sailed around more times than I can remember, I thought it was a joke gone wrong.  Surely, the reason was bella figura, the uniquely Italian male pride-style, all show and no substance.  After all, it is the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, and for one sick moment I imagined some show-off captain had tried an impossible maneuver in order to impress his friends ashore.  As of this writing, it seems that is why he went 300 meters off the mainland rather than the required 3,000.  Still, 20 or more people are missing, and 11 are certified dead.

By the time you read this we will know more.  One thing is for sure, even in Italy, Captain Schettino risks going down in history as a man who not only ran his boat aground—modern equipment notwithstanding—but was in the bar with two female companions and got off his ship long before his passengers.  Which brings me to the point I wish to make.  In the chaos that ensued after the ship began to list, fear took over, with the predictable Darwinian results.  The strong managed to get a place on the lifeboats; the weak did not.  But let’s go back 100 years to the sinking of the Titanic: 74 percent of the women were saved, 52 percent of the children, and only 20 percent of the men.  Three Italian men from steerage were shot dead for disobeying the order to allow women first.  This was the way it should have been, except for a few exceptions.  The ratio of those who survived reflected the chivalry of the time.

Which brings me to Cosmo Duff Gordon, a Titanic survivor, a Scottish aristocrat and landowner, and a silver-medal winner in fencing in the 1908 Olympics.  Looking at his record, Duff Gordon embodied the ideal of the clean-living hero, the beau geste of the upper classes.  Yet all the qualities of leadership, heroism, pride, and noblesse oblige failed him when it really counted.  He escaped on Lifeboat No. 1.  It was also whispered that he and his wife bribed rowing crewmen not to pick up victims in the water in case they swamped the boat.  (This was never proved.)  In his defense, Lifeboat No. 1 took on only 12 people, so why not, I’m sure he figured.  Still, he stinks to high heaven.

I measure fear by how close you feel to what you fear.  My friend Commissioner Von Raab told me about an incident when he was in government and how two four-star generals who had seen action on the battlefield chickened out time and again when in a different environment, as in a ministerial conference.  They feared upsetting higher-ups, whereas in battle one does not have the luxury of sucking up.  Von Raab was being kind.  Fear is uncontrollable.  I have a friend who has conquered Everest and has climbed the north side of the Eiger five times.  Yet when we do karate, he flinches and covers up the moment I fake an attack.  Go figure, as they say in Noo Yawk.

Twenty million people cruise yearly on boats like the Costa Concordia, and I’ll bet my last devalued euro that every single one, except those suffering from dementia, pictures himself in a Titanic-like situation and asks himself what he would really do in the case the boat was going down and there were not enough lifeboats for everyone.  Here’s what I said in the Proustian questionnaire Vanity Fair conducts in each issue.  Question: How would you like to die?  Answer: Giving up the last seat in the last lifeboat of a sinking liner to a beautiful young girl, and returning to the first-class lounge for a final drink.

I know, I know, it sounds terrific and romantic and macho and noble, and I am 75, but when I answered the question I was sitting comfortably at my desk and very secure in my house on dry land.  It’s easy to rage against cowardice, even in a time when chivalry no longer exists, which of course is a sad reflection of our society today.