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One act does not a man's entire moral character make

No one likes a coward. When said coward also happens to be Italian, it conforms to way too many national stereotypes to be resisted.

Step forward Francesco Schettino, captain of the Costa Concordia cruise liner, which went down off the Italian coast a week ago last Friday with a confirmed loss, so far, of 12 lives. More remain missing.

Schettino has admitted that he made a navigational error in passing too close to the Tuscan shore that night; he also confessed that he'd done it before, and is now under house arrest and facing multiple manslaughter charges for actions which the investigating judge says were "inept, negligent and imprudent".

His career at sea is over. But it's what happened after the accident that will haunt Schettino for the rest of his life, as he took to a lifeboat while there were still people on board waiting to be rescued, breaking the great commandment of shipping -- that the captain should be last to leave the ship after ensuring the safety of his passengers, or else go down with it.

Schettino even made things worse for himself by claiming that he "fell into a lifeboat" and couldn't get out again -- a statement that looked all the more bizarre when a tape was released of an exchange between the captain and an infuriated Italian coastguard, who repeatedly ordered the reluctant captain to return to his ship in order to oversee the rescue effort.

It does seem undeniable that, in the heat of the moment, Schettino followed the example of Bob Hope who, in one film, is asked whether he wants to "die like a hero" and replies: "No, I'd rather live like a coward."

But even if all this -- including the claims that he spent part of the fateful night drinking in the restaurant with a dancer -- were true, and there seems little doubt about it, does he really deserve to be condemned forever as "Captain Coward", as the headline writers have dubbed him? He made the original mistake, but many people owe their lives to Schettino's subsequent actions, as he chose to make a U-turn and deliberately strand the boat on a nearby rocky island rather than head for the mainland. Sources confirm that the ship wouldn't have made it and many more passengers would have drowned. Fellow crew members also insist that he did oversee the evacuation of thousands of people before taking his place in the lifeboat.

One act does not make a man's entire moral character. You can be brave 99 per cent of the time and panic just once. Who knows what they'd do when the body's "fight or flight" response kicks in?

Those who condemn Schettino want to buy into some idealised myth, whereby all sea captains are like Russell Crowe in Master and Commander, doggedly following the orders of his naval superiors to pursue a French ship and either "sink, burn or take her". That kind of selfless heroism is certainly a glorious thing. Look at those who went to sea to help with the rescue of the stricken Tit Bonhomme in Glandore Bay last Sunday morning, or the lifeboatmen of Baltimore who went out in treacherous conditions to save the crew of a yacht that sank during the Fastnet race in August.

All are heroes, exemplifying the best qualities of men under pressure.

But no one really knows how they would behave in times of stress. Some people rise to the occasion; others crumble. Good people crumble, and bad people behave well. There is no knowing before the event how each individual will react, and those who purport to know themselves so well are idiots. It's easy to be a hero when you've not been tested.

It's like all those people who confidently declare that they would have valiantly resisted the Nazis had they been around in Germany in the Thirties. They don't know what they would have gone along with, any more than Germans at the time knew before it happened.

You only have to look at the North to see what ordinary people will do for a quiet life, or out of fear of the consequences. We may like to dream that we'd always rise above our baser natures, but evidence suggests otherwise.

Mark Wahlberg made a similar fool of himself last week when talking about Flight 93, which crashed into a field in Philadelphia on September 11 after passengers stormed the cockpit in an effort to wrestle the plane back from Muslim fundamentalist hijackers. The Hollywood star was booked to be on the plane that day, but at the last minute he chartered a private flight to a film festival in Canada.

He declared to an interviewer: "If I was on that plane with my kids, it wouldn't have went down like it did. There would have been a lot of blood in that first class cabin and then me saying: 'Okay, we're going to land somewhere safely, don't worry'."

It's the sort of thing any group of friends might discuss sitting around whilst having a few (too many) beers. We've all had those "what if?" conversations. But it's strange that many of the same people who recognise that Wahlberg was being a loud-mouthed insensitive jerk still think they would, in Captain Schettino's designer Italian shoes, have behaved so much more self-sacrificially than he did, taking control of the situation and promising the passengers they, too, would "land somewhere safely, don't worry".

Even if he did the wrong thing, he's paying for it now, and not simply with the threat of prison. Much harder to endure is that, thanks to the internet, he's now not only the "most hated man in Italy", but the most despised one across the world. Such is the nature of globalised media, where personal ignominy is transmitted and amplified a thousand fold.

The internet can be a hateful place for those who fail to live up to what's expected of them; the atmosphere quickly becomes nasty. People have committed suicide after being faced with much less virulent public hostility.

The atmosphere was soured still further by the release of that taped exchange between Schettino and the coastguard. He was only ever going to come out of it looking contemptible. Maybe that was why it was released. It suits everyone, from the shipping company to the Italian authorities, to have a convenient scapegoat to take the heat for a disaster, rather than face awkward questions about safety procedures and ship design, or whether cruise ships have simply grown too bloated and unwieldy, thereby exacerbating potential tragedies.

I wouldn't want Captain Schettino in charge of any ship that I was on, but I wouldn't want the people who threw him to the wolves looking out for me either.

Clearly he's not the only one who thinks it's "every man for himself".

Sunday Independent