Politics & Policy

The Tampa Bay Terrorists?

In real life, buccaneers were horrible people.

In last year’s Super Bowl symposium on NRO, I made a stupid prediction: I said the New England Patriots would win.

My reasoning was simple. In the first Super Bowl since 9/11, a team named the Patriots deserved victory. I was thinking with my heart rather than my head. But sometimes upsets do happen, even in the Super Bowl, and the Patriots defeated the heavily favored St. Louis Rams.

Maybe the team name really did have something to do with it, and cosmic justice played a role. It would be nice to think so.

Two different teams will face each other on Sunday in Super Bowl XXXVII — the Oakland Raiders and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — and I don’t have a clue about which one is going to win. If names still mean something, though, the Bucs may have reason to worry.

Imagine a professional football team, a century or two in the future, going by the name “Terrorists” and putting a picture of Osama bin Laden on the sides of its helmets. It sounds outlandish, but it would have seemed equally bizarre to a person living a few hundred years ago that our culture would have domesticized the image of piracy. Today, pirates are figures of fun — they’re children’s toys (I bought some for my kids last Christmas), kooky characters on kids shows (any parent familiar with The Wiggles and their friend Captain Feathersword knows what I mean), and even theme-park attractions.

“Pirates have acquired a romantic aura which they never had in the seventeenth century and which they certainly never deserved,” writes the historian David Cordingly in his very good book, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates. “Pirates were not maritime versions of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Piracy, like rape, depended on the use of force or the threat of force, and pirate attacks were frequently accompanied by extreme violence, torture, and death.”

These were really, really bad people. They are perhaps best understood as the armed robbers (and murderers and rapists) of the world’s seaways. (Buccaneers, by the way, were pirates who operated in the Caribbean and around Latin America — their name comes from the French word boucaner, which describes a smoke-dried cooking process they often employed.)

Piracy remains a serious problem today, as this report by the International Chamber of Commerce reveals. Each year, modern-day pirates attack hundreds of ships, especially in Southeast Asia. They kill and take hostages along the way. For a map showing the location of attacks in 2002, click here. For the latest Weekly Piracy Report, click here. A little more than two years ago, piracy and terrorism arguably converged in al Qaeda’s attack on the U.S.S. Cole, which left 17 sailors dead and 39 injured.

Yet you can get a really good chuckle out of pirates by visiting Disney World, which, come to think of it, isn’t too far from the Bucs’ home field. Go on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and hear those crazy characters sing their nutty song:

Yo ho, yo ho

A pirate’s life for me!

We pillage, we plunder, we rifle, we loot,

Drink up, me hearties, yo ho!

How did a horrible breed of miscreants turn into something else? Cordingly theorizes that over time, as the direct threat of piracy receded among Americans and Europeans, a group of common criminals came to be seen as romantic outlaws. He points to Lord Byron’s The Corsair, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan as key documents that drove the transformation.

Whatever the cause, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pay tribute to a terrible legacy of lawlessness, however inadvertently.

It almost makes me wish the Patriots were back at the Super Bowl this year, so they could win one more time.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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