Announcer: Free and back home after his time as a hostage, Captain Richard Phillips will be the guest of honor at a picnic this weekend in Underhill. But Commentator Philip Baruth is convinced that unfortunately the story of the Somali pirates is far from complete. Here’s Philip.
Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #230: About Those Pirates
Captain Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vermont is back home now, after one of the most harrowing cargo ship voyages in American history. Harrowing not just because Somali pirates held the Captain hostage in a lifeboat for five days, but harrowing because the global media picked up where the pirates left off.
Sure, the coverage of Phillips to date has been almost uniformly positive. But it’s never pretty to watch someone — an actual three-dimensional person and their family — packaged and sold two-dimensionally and around the clock on cable television.
The Phillips family has handled the media scrum with great dignity, but something about the pictures of row after row of satellite trucks parked just at the edge of their property line can’t help but set your teeth on edge. And it’s not just the trucks but the particular quality of the stories they’ve beamed into the sky over the last several weeks.
There’s an old saying in the newspaper business, that American readers only want two kinds of stories: Oh the wonder of it, and Oh the shame of it.
In other words, we want heroes or villains, and a story’s staying power depends primarily on how pure and unadulterated the heroism or villainy.
But of course there’s a third sort of story that Americans love even more — the pure hero who is slowly revealed to be the pure villain. Eliot Spitzer falls neatly into this last category, the avenging prosecutor who became the Governor of New York, only to be unmasked as a common john — and not even a common john but a john that prostitutes needed to warn one another about.
Do I think that the media will find a way to portray Captain Phillips as a villain somehow? No. Not that they wouldn’t if they could, but I don’t think there’s any way that they can. Phillips is the genuine article: a ship’s captain who offered his own life to save those of his crew.
But it’s fair to say that the hostage stand-off and its resolution were immediately politicized. Just moments after Navy SEALS shot three of the pirates, the Associated Press was portraying the resolution as an international victory for the Obama administration, and stressing the President’s active involvement in the final decision-making process.
And the physics of cable television are inexorable: if anyone anywhere declares anything a victory for the White House, then someone somewhere must declare it an act of cowardice, even treason.
In this case, a counter-narrative began to assert itself almost as quickly: that these pirates were teenagers, just boys really, boys possibly in withdrawal from an addictive leaf chewed by many Somalis called Khat. The mother of Abdiweli Muse, the one pirate captured and brought back to the United States, says her son was a good student who was forced into piracy by older men.
So in this counter-narrative, Captain Phillip’s Somali kidnappers become themselves the kidnapped, and the daring rescue by navy SEAls becomes a cruel and thoughtless abuse of power on the high seas.
Muse is scheduled to go on trial soon, and his defense lawyers will do their jobs: making their client appear as sympathetic as possible.
And the media will do its job as well: having expended the wonder of the tale of Captain Phillips and the Pirates, the cable news machine will then do its best to cover the story in shame, whatever shame it can find or manufacture.
Captain Phillips will be honored at a town picnic in Underhill this weekend, and the weather should be fine. But no one should be fooled by the sun and the speeches. This ordeal is not yet over, and not all the attackers make their living on the Indian Ocean.
[This piece aired first on Vermont Public Radio. Audio of the commentary is available here.]