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Cruise Ship Hysteria

There has been a lot of bad press about the cruise industry of late. It has come under fire over stomach virus outbreaks and some troubling, tragic events which were apparently criminal in nature. On television, panderer CBS News seems eager to fan the flames of hyperbole; two mornings running they’ve featured segments on – I paraphrase very loosely here – the “unregulated ships that have no laws.”

Now there is a House of Representatives hearing in progress, and a group has been formed which calls itself “International Cruise Victims.” It is claimed that twenty-eight people have disappeared from cruise ships in the last three years, while only five have been found, according to a CBS web story. Quoting the article: “a congressional memo compiled in advance of the hearing on cruise ship safety also details 177 sexual misconduct incidents, ranging from inappropriate touching to rape, and four robberies of amounts over $5,000.” There’s no information as to the nature of the disappearances – some could simply be a case of “drunken man dives overboard.” Additionally, the numbers don’t seem horrifically high on their face, but more about that later.

Apparently the cruise lines are not compelled by law to compile crime statistics, and out on the ocean only sketchy, international laws apply. Therefore, of course, the natural impulse of those who have been wronged is to go screaming to government to solve the perceived problem, to force the cruise ships to obey as yet unformulated U.S. regulations.

The problem with this approach is that, as we all know, government meddling rarely solves anything, and instead only makes things worse. Presumably Congress will force ships to log all supposed crimes which occur on their decks, no matter how ridiculous (e.g., passenger Smith smoked in the “No Smoking” zone), and require captains to sign off on them under penalty fine and imprisonment. Perhaps the ocean liners will have to hire a certain number of security people based upon the number of passengers they carry, or the number of nooks and crannies where mayhem might take place. Maybe cruise ships will have to include a list of recent onboard crimes with every advertising brochure they send out. Naturally all of this nonsense will cost money which will be passed off onto the passengers, and tend to stifle the cruise industry, eventually causing some ships to forgo U.S. ports entirely.

I, myself, have been on just one cruise, several years ago, and I actually did ponder the fact that “anything could happen” on that floating police-less city on the water. The crews of these ships are international in makeup, so I wondered what exotic diseases I might catch. I imagined I might run afoul of some “gang of wackos ” who might dislike me for some reason, and toss me into the drink. What if I hurt myself so badly playing shuffleboard that I needed a hospital immediately? Yes, these things crossed my mind, and the reality is that concerns such as these, rational or not, are part of the equation a person solves in his mind before undertaking any activity. Sure, something bad might have happened, but the probabilities seemed extremely low, so I went on the cruise. If other people feel the danger is too great, they just won’t go; it is their choice. This is called “freedom.”

Perhaps published lists of crimes at sea may enable potential passengers to evaluate the risks more accurately, but regulations and beefed-up security would likely not be worth the added expense and annoyance. Just as on land, security forces at sea wouldn’t be able to stop most crimes. Their physical presence may deter certain misdeeds, but most of the time the police arrive after the fact, too late to prevent them. It’s unlikely that a security force hired by a cruise line will be objective, so what are the hysterical supplicants proposing – that we quarter federal marshals onboard at taxpayer expense to ensure order!? To be sure, the vast majority of passengers on a cruise are there to relax and have a good time; I suspect that the ratio of potential evildoers is smaller on one of these ships than it is in any major metropolitan area.

Oh, I almost forgot, the congressional memo noted above states that during the three-year period, approximately 25 million people embarked on cruises from North American ports. Once again quoting the CBS web story: “James Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University retained by the International Council of Cruise Lines, said in a statement issued by the council that, ‘While virtually no place – on land or sea – is totally free of risk, the number of reported incidents of serious crime from cruise lines is extremely low, no matter what benchmark or standard is used.'”

(By the way, during my cruise I neither witnessed nor heard about any “incidents,” although I did catch a garden-variety cold.)

March 9, 2006

Andrew S. Fischer has worked in various fields.

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