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Piracy out of Africa

For several years, as the the Somali state has spiraled down into deeper and deeper chaos, piracy in Somali and international waters around the failed nation has threatened to close off vital shipping lanes through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Piracy has only gotten worse in the last couple years as the political situation in Somalia has deteriorated even further.

This last year alone, there were over 40 successful hijackings and over 15 ships are currently being held for ransom, with over 250 crew members held hostage. The first mistake that the civilized world is not taking more forceful action against these pirates. It doesn’t help that the ships’ crews are lying down and waiting for the ships’ owners to pay up the ransom. The fact that these ransoms are being paid is encouraging piracy, because these impoverished young Somali men know they can get a (relatively) easy payout from this.

That all changed this week when pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama, a US-operated Dutch ship. The pirates briefly had control of the ship before the crew fought back, retaking control. Out of all the ships that have been hijacked and held for ransom, this is the first case of the crew fighting back. It might sound cheesy, and while it could easily have been a perfect opportunity more than anything, it is not a coincidence that the crew of the Maersk is American.

The captain of the ship, Richard Phillips, apparently sacrificed himself as a hostage to let the rest of the crew go free. In the subsequent days, he was held hostage by four of the pirates in a lifeboat, floating off of the Somali coast. The US Navy moved a destroyer, the USS Bainbridge in to monitor the situation. In a display of amazing determination, he dove overboard at one point and tried to swim to the warship, but was recaptured. Just today, he did so again. The pirates, in a short exchange of gunfire with the Bainbridge, were dispatched by Navy SEAL sharpshooters, ending the hostage situation. I’ll leave hero-naming to others, but Captain Phillip’s indominatable spirit and refusal to give in to his grim situation is inspiring.

What pissed me off during this whole Maersk business was a NYT article: Standoff with Pirates shows US Power has limits. Unintentionally, the article points out the problem with dealing with pirates as a national superpower: In trying to seem civilized and humane, we are straitjacketting ourselves when it comes to dealing with what are a band of armed gangster thugs who have no respect for international law. However, more than likely, this article is written by the very type of reporter who would just as easily call our navy inhumane and overzealous if we were to blast pirate ships out of the water.

With regards to combating the pirate problem, Oregon Commentator regular Professor Bill Harbaugh from the UO Dept. of Economics has a novel (and ancestral) solution:

“a more cost effective solution would be for President Obama to encourage Congress to use its constitutional authority to issue “letters of marque and reprisal” to competing Somali warlords, allowing them to act as privateers and attack, take, and seize the ships and equipment of these brigands, which could then be exchanged for U.S. prize money.”

  1. […] a lot recently. Here’s little background that I lifted off of my blog post about this on the Oregon Commentator for those who don’t know: For several years, as the the Somali state has spiraled down into […]

  2. […] issue in context of the failed state of Somalia. Check out my blog post about that on the Oregon Commentator blog. I’ve also been engaging in the issue of ASUO Elections, which continue this week until […]

  3. Sean says:

    You’re right, Bryan, I take back what I said about the reporter. The article actually didn’t mention much about US limitations, the editor’s the one at fault for making a bad headline.

  4. harbaugh says:

    It turns out the US signed the 1907 Hague convention and privateering is now illegal. Another dream dies.

  5. Bryan says:

    Kudos to Captain Phillips and the crew of the Maersk Alabama for fighting back!

    WRT the NYT headline, I think the editor who wrote it did so because he recognizes that the Navy cannot be everywhere at once. It wasn’t so much a criticism of the Navy as much as it was an explanation to the public as to why the Navy hasn’t stamped out piracy in that region. Judging by some of the conversations I’ve seen online, many people were unaware that pirates still operate and had the ability to take a US ship hostage.

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