Low-Down Pirates on the High Seas

This may be an indictment of this season's television programming, but it seems there's seldom anything on TV more spellbinding than the news.

An influenza epidemic going global, a financial crisis taking down one economy after another, an ice shelf half the size of Scotland detaching itself from Antarctica, pirates roaming the Indian Ocean. Who needs to watch “24” with these plots developing on CNN?

Of the aforementioned topics, let's take a look today at pirates, since that's the one challenge where we've seen at least a little headway lately.

Any illusions I had about the romantic, swashbuckling side of piracy were shattered years ago when my wife and I got to know Cathy, a young nurse who had worked in Southeast Asia during the decade following the Vietnam War. Posted to a clinic in a teeming coastal city, she was shocked at how many of her female patients had been victimized — make that brutally beaten and raped — by pirates.

Cathy's training had prepared her to deal with tropical disease, malnutrition and poor hygiene, but not pirates.

Her own previous exposure to pirates had been at Disney World, situated not far from her hometown in central Florida. At Disney World, the pirates were of the “Arrgh, matey” variety. Disney World pirates — or, rather, the automatons that represent them — would fire quaint-looking muskets at your tour boat as they gloated uproariously over treasure chests and slurped down huge quantities of pirate's ale. The cast was rounded out by a talking parrot and a crocodile or two.

In Southeast Asia, Cathy learned that pirates were desperate men of unimaginable violence, unquenchable greed and utter disdain for human life. A co-worker told her that these beastly men were driven by the poverty, oppression and abuse they themselves had suffered. Maybe so. To Cathy, it looked like plain old human sin run rampant. Regardless, she set herself to binding up physical and emotional wounds, praying for victims and victimizers alike — and trying to alert people back home to what she was witnessing.

It's strange the things people tend to get obsessed with. There weren't many voices speaking up for victims of piracy in those days — the early 1980s, when most of us were complaining about being victims of disco music — but that didn't keep Cathy from taking every opportunity to open people's eyes. Back home for a furlough, she even went so far as to buy Disney World tickets for a group of us, mainly so she could lead us through Disney's colorful pirate exhibition — and then hit us with her story: the truth about pirates.

Needless to say, Cathy and her work with victims of piracy have often come to mind lately as the newly infamous Somali pirates vie for headlines with a drooping Dow and yet another strain of exotic influenza. Today's pirates skitter about in speedboats and take potshots with automatic weapons, but they're of the same ilk that Cathy contended with 25 years ago in Asia. And they're very likely of the type that terrorized the Caribbean and the Atlantic three centuries back — the ones we like to picture now as Captain Hook, Errol Flynn or Johnny Depp.

Truth be told, I haven't yet read of the same atrocities attributed to the Somali pirates that Cathy related from her tour of duty in Asia. These men seem to be fairly ordinary thugs coordinated by land-based gangsters who've found that hijacking oil tankers and relief ships loaded with grain is a steady source of income. Commandeering a shipful of arms bound for Sudan must have really seemed like a prize.

But pirates are pirates. Motivated by greed and numb to violence, they specialize in attacking defenseless or under-defended vessels, capturing human hostages and demanding huge ransoms. If something's holding them back from outright rape and pillage, I wouldn't count on it for long.

Compared to his predecessor's War on Terror, President Obama's War on Piracy may seem like small potatoes. That aside, we're reminded that, however confused we may have gotten over the past six or seven years, it's generally a good thing when governments take concerted action against a known evil. Isn't it?

I'm not so cynical as to insist on this, but I imagine President Obama, as comfortable with nuance as he may be, is glad to have an enemy — piracy on the high seas — that lends itself so easily to caricature, even if the image we have from Hollywood and theme parks is — so what's new? — dreadfully distorted.

So it must have been a disappointment that the prisoner brought to the U.S. for justice a couple of weeks ago turned out to be only 16 years old. Or so says his mother, who claims that, on last view, her boy was heading out after breakfast in his school uniform. But maybe he's 20, or even 26. Maybe nobody knows, not even his mother.

And it must have driven the White House crazy that, when he arrived on our shores, the guy was photographed grinning from alleged-pirate ear to alleged-pirate ear. Compared to the sort of gangster justice to which he was probably accustomed, a legitimate legal system must have seemed — at first, anyway — like a trip to, well, Disneyland.

More in Presidential races

Paul: Current criminal laws create situation 'somewhat like segregation'

Read more »