Friday, August 28, 2020

"The Pirate Hunter," by Richard Zacks--Nonfiction Review

Avast ye mateys of the obscure waters, we be talking about pirates this week, savvy? And we be doing it in the most stereotypical way imaginable, and not even on talk like a pirate day—further demonstrating my supremely poor sense of timing. This is just like that time I proposed marriage to me bonny lass, Cynthia, in a cemetery, at her uncle’s funeral… Anyway, today’s book is “The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd” by Richard Zacks.     

Richard Zacks

What I love about this book:

The introduction spells out what this book is about, and the author’s viewpoints, and introduces the thesis that Captain Kidd wasn’t precisely a pirate, but was maligned—to his death. From there, the rest of the book is building that case about the man.

I love a good nautical adventure, be it fiction or non-fiction, and this book doesn’t disappoint. Despite being non-fiction, this book has a Jules Verne, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” feel about it. What I mean by that is there is excellent attention to details of how the ship operates and how the crew lives and works. This book, though, could be more accurately described as an inverse to Verne’s work, which was forward-looking for his day of what technology will one day look like on a ship because “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” is science fiction. “The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd” is a historical look at pirates and ships of the past. 

The whole legend of pirates burying their treasure was a thing no pirate really did—they tended to spend their booty. The legend of pirates burying their treasure started because it was something Captain Kidd did with his valuables while trying to clear his name of the charge of piracy, which is a neat detail this book brings up. 

I found all of the research Zacks did regarding Captain Kidd’s rival, Robert Culliford, to be illuminating. He isn’t a figure you hear about as much as Kidd, and that guy was absolutely a stone-cold pirate. Captain Kidd, despite his failings, seemed to me to be a man who set out to do right by his crew and country, but external events conspired against him, mixed with his own vanities and occasional temper. 

This is a double-edged sword here, but Zacks spares no detail about the life of Captain Kidd and the world he inhabited, he goes into minutia that is genuinely impressive that he manages to summon up. At times, this biography feels more like a novel because of that level of detail. 

What I don’t love about this book:

It goes on for a very, very long time. You know how I said all the detail was a double-edged sword? Zacks goes into such exquisite detail that if you can pay attention, you can virtually see the world in which Captain Kidd lived, in your mind’s eye. But the operative word is—if—because with the sheer tower of detail into which Zacks infuses this book means that if your focus wavers, it topples over and becomes dense.

Furthermore, the flow of this book tends to meander off into points and with people that are only tangentially important to the overall message. Sure, on the one hand, you could argue this is the author giving historical color to his thesis, but I think it’s equally valid to say that Zacks is so enamored with his subject he allows it to carry him away. 

Also, while I like the introduction—it concisely explains what the rest of the book is about—Zacks’ opinion that Captain Kidd was sold down the river, and was largely innocent of all charges of piracy, can feel a tad hero worship-like. Ultimately, he convinces me that Kidd didn’t get a fair shake at defending himself, and didn’t deserve his fate. Still, Zacks’ narrative about the man’s life can feel at times a little over-eager to prove that point.

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Parting thoughts:

The justice system of Kidd’s day wasn’t up to our standards of today, and this book works as a chilling reminder of why fair and impartial due process is so important. The kangaroo style court proceedings at the end of the book are downright appalling.

In today’s world, it worries me when I hear people express attitudes that can only be described as quick to judge and prescribe swift punishment. 

Our ideals of justice are supposedly founded on the notion it is better that nine guilty persons should go free rather than one innocent should suffer, sure it’s a cliché, but all clichés start as memorable ideas. It’s why I’m so uncomfortable about the notion of the death penalty, that the state has the right, nay the mandate, to murder one of its citizens.

I get the visceral reasons why people desire the death penalty for violent, murderous criminals—it’s as old as it is biblical, an eye for an eye. But it is a policy born from rage, which that alone, to me, should raise the question does that make it wise?

The other reasons for the death penalty—other than biblical justice described above—are deterrence, protecting law-abiding citizens, and not spending money from the state’s coffers to feed and house a violent murderer for the rest of his natural-born life.

Let’s take them one by one. There is no evidence to support the idea that the death penalty has any impact on the rate of homicide, and this isn’t a particularly controversial idea either and has been studied by such bodies as Northwestern University, School of Law. The idea that it protects law-abiding citizens is accurate in the sense that particular murderer won’t be harming anyone else unless you believe in ghosts—but you know what else does that? Someone being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. This brings us to the final argument I hear the most often on this topic, money. So when a person is sentenced to death, a lot of things happen, primarily there are a lot of automatic appeals that have to be dealt with by the legal system, which means legal fees, and a lot of hours worked, by a lot of people, and it’s all costly. So costly, in fact, that it tends to be cheaper just to warehouse these people for the rest of their life.

My final argument here is, so far as we know—excluding various religious theories—this is it, this is all the time we get, and that includes murderers too. So what sounds more punishing? To be strapped to a gurney and be put to sleep, like we do with desperately ill pets? Or spending years, upon years, in a cell, never leaving, never interacting with the outside world in a meaningful way, feeling your body become frailer and more wasted with each day to only one day be consigned to oblivion—unwept and unmourned.

I want to think that if faced with the unimaginable, and someone I loved was taken by such a criminal, that I would have the fortitude to stick to my ideals. But I don’t know if that’s true, can’t know if it’s true, and hope I never have to face that ultimate worst moment. That is, however, my point, people who are in this emotional hurricane should not be the ones influencing the hand of justice because rage and hate are like an uncontrolled inferno—blind to what they burn. The truly insidious thing about those two human impulses is that they feel like wisdom in the moment but rarely result in positive outcomes. Don’t believe me? Please take a look at the world we live in right now. Do you think our problems stem from our overabundance of love and compassion for each other?

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