Last week we welcomed home the cargo ship Maersk Alabama. Both its captain and crew were undeniably heroic in surviving a failed hijacking attempt by Somali pirates. Also heralded as heroes were the Navy Seal snipers who took out three of the four pirates to rescue the ship's captain.
As CNN's Ed Rollins noted, President Obama made the right call on the rescue. He wrote
President Obama's authorization of Saturday's hostage rescue of Captain Richard Phillips, and the justified killing of three Somali pirates by Navy SEAL sharpshooters, took real courage and was certainly the right decision.
I agree. But that does not change the fact of how I felt when I saw a photo
of Abduhl Wal-i-Musi, the lone surviving Somali pirate.
As his picture loomed out at me I couldn't help but notice that he didn't look like my idea of a pirate at all. He looked a young, somewhat emaciated, very frightened teenage boy. I stared at that picture and a feeling stirred up inside me—something like sadness, empathy. I later read that some of the pirates may have been as young as 14 (MSNBC reports
that Defense Secretary Robert Gates now confirms all were between the ages of 17-19).
Personally, I hadn't really felt empathy for them before. This was mainly because in my mind's eye the word "pirate" conjured up images of evil, hardhearted, swashbuckling men ruthlessly roaming the sea in search of treasure. And on the one hand, that is an accurate depiction of the Somali pirates' intentions.
But on the other hand, there is another more human side to the story. There is a story
of young boys wielding big guns, of a desperation driven by a country's intense poverty and hopelessness.
So, in the aftermath of that heroic rescue I find myself contemplating some deeper issues.
Let me preface by saying that in no way do I feel that the media has been irresponsible in the reporting of the pirate attacks. I simply hope that we, as journalists, never forget the great power of our words.
We are masters at creating the tone that colors the reality of what we are reporting. With a few strokes of the keyboard we make the unilateral decision of whether to title an article "Ruthless Somali pirates attack U.S. ship", or "Desperate Somali teenagers turn to piracy".
We decide which details to emphasize and which ones to leave it up to readers to dig for elsewhere. And in those seemingly small acts we control the reaction we want to receive from readers.
By the same token I hope we, as readers, always remember to humanize the people we are reading about regardless of how they may be depicted in the media.
As a country charged with upholding justice in the world, there will continuously be many hard tasks put before us. Battles may be fought and lives may be lost, but may we never allow ourselves as journalists to use our words to perhaps make those deaths more palatable.
Instead, as citizens of the greatest nation may our patriotism be tinged with empathy. And whenever lives are taken, regardless of how just, may a feeling rise up inside of all of us—something like sadness.