From the days of Marco Polo, and maybe before, history has been replete with records of piracy, which seems to ebb and flow with time, but almost always focus on vulnerable and relatively narrow or near-shore shipping lanes that lend themselves to sneak attack.
Piracy itself isn't necessarily considered terrorism, but you can see how terrorists might employ the concept to their own ends.
Actually, piracy is considered as a multiple crime, and more of a crime against humanity, by which interpretation a criminal trial could be held in any country that was victimized. But, first you have to catch the pirates and have some convincing evidence to verify the wrongs committed. That, is easier said than done!
It's odd that we sometimes glorify things like piracy, war and crime, and are so entertained by them. How many movies, TV shows or sensational magazines and books do you imagine are watched or read every year?
Ever watch an Errol Flynn movie, or Pirates of the Caribbean, or visited Disney World?
How many sports teams are called Pirates, Buccaneers and Raiders?
And, how many kids dress up as pirates at Halloween?
These subjects do make for exciting entertainment, but only because they usually aren't really happening to the viewer!
Include yourself in such activities and suddenly it ain't fun at all.
That is a place we are approaching now with the escalation of piracy that is impacting real life Americans and people like us, with names, families and healthy lives. Those situations aren't anywhere close to the video games we love to play, while pretending to be so brave. Most of us will never be anything like Indiana Jones or other imaginary heroes, even if we are thrust into situations that could use a real hero.
The frustrating thing about piracy, and some other things, too, is that they are really old news being recycled again, despite the fact that valuable lessons must have already been learned.
What are the root causes of this type of behavior?
Poverty? Lawlessness? Greed?
If one agrees with this list, then the antidotes seem pretty obvious, don't they?
But, they are not simple. They ultimately require that most people share the same values and are willing to insure others do the same.
I read an interesting report recently that analyzed the reasons that sway people to do the right thing -let's use protection of the environment for example:
Some are motivated by just wanting to do the 'right thing'; others are influenced by fear of reprisal and being punished for doing something that harms others; but, most seem to regulate their behaviors by observing what their neighbors and contemporaries do and emulating that!
Is that so surprising?
So, the secret is having family and neighbors who habitually 'do the right thing'.
Of course knowing the right thing does require a little effort, too.
Mainly, that effort seems to entail keen observation of what works -and doesn't- over time, and passing that learning on to others.
And, because intellectual honesty is pretty essential to any such endeavor, if one isn't into the truth they are more likely to fail.
Back to piracy.
It ought to be severely frowned upon, internationally.
But, we've got work to do to achieve that, again.
A few ideas:
• civilized nations need to band together for their common defense. The US isn't -and can't be- the world's policeman!
• when pirates are confronted, they need to understand they can't bargain their way out of committing an international crime.
• centuries old wisdom of gathering ships into convoys for mutual protection needs to be re-instituted
• armed guards need to be readily available when necessary
• severe punishment of captured pirates needs to be a surety that is well advertised
• governments that sanction piracy need to be dealt with by the international community
• 'failed states', like Somalia where no effective government exists, cannot become safe havens for pirates
• shipping companies must be part of the long term solution, and not just pay ransoms that are passed along to their ultimate customers
• use of force may be justified at times, as long as the safety of innocent civilians is protected. of course, pirates are also civilians
Who will pull these ideas together, sell them to the international community and come up with an implementation plan?
Now, you may begin to have an idea of how big a deal this little problem may actually be.
In reality, piracy is just one small thread of the fabric of desirable international behavior, but it is an important thread that could unravel if we aren't careful.
One final thought:
Does it strike anyone as ironic that the Destroyer BAINBRIDGE was called upon to rescue the captain of the Maersk Alabama?
Maybe it ought to.
HINT: This Destroyer is the 5th to use that name, in honor of William Bainbridge, a hero of the War of 1812, who had been previously captured and held hostage by Barbary Pirates in 1800.
Check out this article I've reprinted:
Lessons From the Barbary Pirate Wars
Paul Farley/U.S. Navy — Reuters
The destroyer Bainbridge, now on rescue duty off Somalia.
Well, it’s not last week’s drama on the high seas we’re talking about, when Somali pirates attacked an American freighter in the Indian Ocean and took its captain hostage, then made off with him in a lifeboat.
We’re talking about the Barbary Wars, about 200 years ago, when pirates from the Barbary Coast (today’s Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya) hijacked European ships with impunity and ransomed back the crews.
“When I first read about the Somali pirates, I almost did a double take and turned to my wife at the breakfast table and said, ‘This is déjà vu,’ ” recalled Frank Lambert, a professor at Purdue who is an expert on the Barbary pirates.
Dr. Lambert explained how those brigands, like today’s Somalis, usually kept their hostages alive.
It wasn’t out of any enlightened sense of humanity. I
t was simply good business.
They only hanged captives from giant hooks or carved them into little pieces if they resisted.
The Barbary pirates used small wooden boats, often powered by slaves chained to the oars, to attack larger European ships.
They were crude but effective, like today’s Somali swashbucklers, who in November commandeered a 1,000-foot-long Saudi oil tanker from a dinghy in the Gulf of Aden, a vital shipping lane at the mouth of the Red Sea.
But the Barbary pirates’ bravado became their demise — something the Somalis might keep in mind.
The pirates’ way of doing business was described this way at the time: “When they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth, which usually struck such terror in the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.”
The quote is from Thomas Jefferson, then America’s ambassador to France, after he and John Adams, the envoy in London, got the description from Tripoli’s envoy to Britain in 1786.
And that underscores a key point. The Barbary pirates actually had an ambassador — who met with Jefferson and Adams, no less.
The pirates worked for a government.
The Barbary rulers commissioned them to rob and pillage and kidnap, and the rulers got a cut.
It was all official.
It was truly state-sponsored terrorism.
And the Western nations’ response was to pay “tribute,” a fancy word for blackmail.
If a country paid tribute, the 18th-century pirates would leave its ships alone.
Today, shipping companies fork over as much as $100 million in ransoms to the Somali pirates, a strategy that saves their cargoes but also attracts more underemployed Somali fishermen into the hijacking business.
The United States tried to play nice with the Barbary pirates and even inked a few treaties.
That language, too, has a striking ring.
The Barbary States were Muslim, as is Somalia.
And America stressed that this was not about God.
“The United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,” a 1796 treaty reads.
“It has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,” which is how Muslims was spelled back then.
Eventually, though, Americans felt humiliated paying off a bunch of knife-sucking thugs in blousy pants.
That’s what led to the Barbary Wars, first in 1801 when Jefferson became president, and again in 1815, when James Madison sent the United States Navy to shell the Barbary Coast.
The battles became the stuff of legend — “the shores of Tripoli” in the Marine Hymn — and were critical in developing the nation’s young Navy.
They also figured early in the naval career of one William Bainbridge, an officer who was sent to pay tribute to the dey of Algiers in 1800, was later captured during the war along with his ship, and went on to become a hero of the War of 1812.
Last week, in an irony probably lost on the Somalis, it was a destroyer named after him that the United States Navy sent rushing to help the skipper in the lifeboat.
The Barbary pirates were finally brought to their knees by their encounters with the Americans, and by the French invasion of Algiers in 1830.
Will this happen in Somalia?
Last week — even before a French effort to rescue a family in a separate hijacking ended with the death of one hostage — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged the world to “end the scourge of piracy.”
But Somali piracy is not an isolated problem.
It’s the latest symptom of what afflicts an utterly failed state — a free-for-all on land that has consumed the country since the central government imploded in 1991.
As any warlord there can tell you, the violence is almost always about cash.
“We just want the money” is their mantra.
If that sounds like the 1800s, it also invites talk of solving the problem the same way: pound the bravado out of the pirates by taking the battle to them where it hurts most — on shore.
But any effort to wipe out Somali pirate dens like Xarardheere or Eyl immediately conjures up the ghost of “Black Hawk Down,” the episode in 1993 when clan militiamen in flip-flops killed 18 American soldiers.
Until America can get over that, and until the world can put Somalia together as a nation, another solution suggests itself: just steer clear — way clear, like 500 miles plus — of Somalia’s seas.