Magazine | May 4, 2009, Issue

Piracy and Civilization

A lesson for our time

When U.S. Navy SEAL snipers killed three Somali pirates and rescued Capt. Richard Phillips off the coast of East Africa, they struck a blow for civilization in general and for the liberal civilization of the West in particular. Pirates took an American hostage; they sought a ransom and their own freedom in return for his release; and, when negotiations dragged, they seemed about to shoot him. The snipers, steadying themselves in choppy seas, delivered three shots to the head. If ever a military action deserved the name of “surgical strike,” this one did. It was justified, precise, and lethal. It killed the pirates, rescued Phillips, and avoided harming anyone else. It was, in short, an object lesson in how civilizations can and should deal with their barbarian enemies.

Almost as much should be said about the rescue of four hostages by French Navy commandos three days earlier off the same Somali coast. Two pirates were killed by the naval commandos and three are now in French custody. It is regrettable that one hostage, the owner of the luxury yacht seized by the pirates, was killed. It gives us a salutary reminder that military action produces casualties. That inevitably qualifies the luster of the rescue attempt. Even so, four innocents who might be dead are alive; five pirates are facing justice either divine or Parisian; and a civilized power has shown that it can defeat piracy with very little effort beyond that of will.

Many decent Westerners will not see either military action in that light. Some will deplore the use of force against pirates who had not definitely abandoned negotiating. Others, while accepting that the shootings were necessary to save hostages from the threat of imminent murder, especially in the case of Captain Phillips, will regret that a less draconian method of rescue was unavailable. And a third group will wonder aloud whether the shootings were not perhaps illegal under international law. Almost certainly, a fourth pirate held by the U.S. will not lack for defense lawyers seeking to discourage any such robust unilateralism in future. Maybe the State Department’s prudent lawyers will end up keeping him permanently afloat in the brig of the USS Bainbridge in order to avoid a trial that puts the U.S. Navy in the dock in every sense.

For the moment, though, we are not hearing these voices of doubt and skepticism. We are in the early stage of a civilized victory before we have been made to feel guilty about it. We are allowed to enjoy the details of its success. Thus the media are full of rejoicing at the rescue of Phillips, who is that rare thing: a modern hero. He volunteered as a hostage in order to get his crew released, sought to escape the pirates by jumping into the sea and swimming for it, and proved on his release to be a modest and unboastful man. There is an almost Victorian feel to this kind of heroism for the very good reason that the Victorian age mass-produced such heroes.

And I do mean “mass-produced” — when the British troopship Birkenhead struck a reef off South Africa in 1852, the soldiers were ordered by their officers to remain on deck so that the women and children could leave for safety in the lifeboats. They did so, remaining in formation as the ship sank. A surviving officer said later with understated pride: “All received their orders and had them carried out as if the men were embarking instead of going to the bottom; there was only this difference, that I never saw any embarkation conducted with so little noise or confusion.” More than 400 men perished in the seas that night; all the women and children survived; and the “Birkenhead drill” became a symbol of heroic self-sacrifice for the age.

#page#Civilizations cannot expect victories against ruthless barbarians unless they produce heroes who rise to challenges in this way. As Iraq and Afghanistan both show, however, America continues to mass-produce such heroes (even if the media are more interested in them as victims). And their heroism comes in different guises. If Captain Phillips was a hero of courage, the men who killed his captors appear to us more as heroes of skill. Like the U.S. soldiers who fight and die in Iraq and Afghanistan, they would doubtless put themselves in harm’s way if necessary. But heroes are not reckless or foolhardy. When lives are at stake, there is no point in fighting inefficiently or in taking foolish risks. A sensible hero fights bravely when he needs to do so; but first he fights prudently in order to avoid fighting bravely.

For there are such creatures as heroes of prudence. In general the prudential hero is someone in a position of power or authority. His courage consists of making the right decisions in difficult circumstances and sometimes against fierce opposition or in contrast to his interests and alliances. This is known as moral courage, and though it ought to be easier to summon up than physical courage, it has often been in very short supply. As Charles Péguy once said: “It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of looking insufficiently progressive.”

In this case the hero of prudence is President Obama. He gave the crucial order to shoot the pirates if that proved necessary to save the life of Captain Phillips. Like the captain, he proved modest in the matter, staying out of the limelight, leaving his spokesman to report what had been done. Since the rescue, he has confined himself to suitably diplomatic promises to “halt the rise of piracy” in concert with other powers. At no point has he seemed fearful of looking insufficiently progressive.

Of course, a certain such aloofness is Obama’s style. Also, he has not needed to promote his role in this crisis, since the media have performed that service for him. Columnists argue that the rescue will boost his standing as a Democrat who has the guts to order a military response. His order to shoot the pirates has been compared to Ronald Reagan’s firing of the air-traffic controllers. Both are seen as warning potential opponents not to underestimate the man they’re dealing with.

But there are pitfalls here. A better example than Reagan and PATCO — a domestic economic dispute — would surely be Margaret Thatcher’s ordering Britain’s SAS commandos to invade the Iranian embassy (then in the hands of terrorists) and rescue the hostages held captive there. Like the rescue of Phillips, this was a success. None of the hostages was killed — and all of the terrorists perished (except one whom the SAS mistook for a hostage in the confusion). The rescue occurred in her first year of office. Like Obama, she gave the crucial order to “go in.” The action was seen live on television, since the news organizations were parked permanently outside the embassy. So, even before the Falklands War, the SAS rescue gave Mrs. Thatcher the useful and accurate reputation of being one tough babe.

Obama and Thatcher are probably alike in benefiting politically from their decisions to order a military rescue. Where they may differ is that the SAS rescue looked like a natural element in Thatcher’s politics. It foreshadowed her conduct of the Falklands War, her role as Reagan’s ally in the Cold War, her support of the U.S. bombing raid on Libya, and much else. It reinforced the apparent logic underlying her overall strategy of a British national revival and therefore gave credibility to her political appeal.

#page#Obama’s overall strategy is to emphasize domestic policy and the economy over foreign policy and, within foreign policy, to stress diplomacy and negotiation over military force. A military rescue, however justified and popular, fits less comfortably into this pattern. To be sure, its apparent hawkishness may provide the president with cover for a more dovish foreign policy than the voters would otherwise accept. But it may also foster an appetite among the voters for a tougher, more nationalist, and more interventionist policy than he would ideally pursue. That second possibility is more likely if the issue of piracy grows in importance both in reality and in the American imagination. For piracy is one of several issues where military intervention is a liberal cause more than a nationalist one.

And it is very likely that piracy will grow. Indeed, it has been making an international comeback since the Vietnam War. In the early 1980s, “boat people” fleeing Communist rule in Vietnam were frequently murdered by pirates in the China Sea. Drugs and illegal migration have fostered growing piracy in seas around Indonesia, the Philippines, West Africa, and the Caribbean since the 1980s. In the 1990s the collapse of any kind of ordered government in Somalia turned the former fishing villages of its coast into nests of pirates. An Internet map of places infested by pirates today shows them operating off Venezuela, Algeria, Nigeria, Angola, Kenya, Tanzania, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Australia, the Philippines, and even Italy. (Pirates smuggling illegal migrants into Italy, incidentally, have been known to reverse the morality of the HMS Birkenhead and throw women and children into the sea to escape pursuers.) What is more, the scale of the threat is growing constantly: According to the International Maritime Bureau, there were 199 maritime attacks in the first nine months of last year. Media reports suggest that the rate has risen substantially since then.

But how destructive is piracy, as a business, to other businesses? This is hard to answer, for, as piracy has grown, the shipping industry has adapted by treating it as a business expense. As W. S. Gilbert wrote of the sinking of the Ballyshannon: “Down went the owners — greedy men whom hope of gain allured / Oh dry the starting tear — for they were heavily insured.”

Hence it is almost impossible to estimate the economic cost of piracy; until recently, ship owners often failed to report hijackings. It cost them more to keep their ships in port while investigations proceeded than it did to absorb the costs of piracy or to recoup them from insurance companies.

But adapting to piracy, i.e., failing to resist it and passing its costs on to customers, ensures in theory that it will continue to grow, at least until the customers rebel. That seems to be happening in practice: A London-based corporate risk consultancy, BGN Risk, estimates that the insurance risk premium for crossing the Gulf of Aden has risen in short order from $500 per voyage to $20,000. That translates to an increase in shipping insurance and transportation costs of $400 million. It also translates into a rising number of people kidnapped and murdered by pirates. And, finally, it produces on a world scale the “broken windows” effect of encouraging crime, disorder, and anarchy, so that a liberal commercial civilization becomes much less stable, much more costly, and ultimately much less prosperous. Commercial civilization depends in the end upon the demonstrated willingness to use force.

These truths have finally dawned on the great powers. In the last few years nations as different as China, Russia, France, India, Britain, and the U.S. have jointly and individually sent warships into the waters off the Somali coast to fight the pirate threat. The U.N. Security Council has called on nations with ships in the area to suppress piracy. An arms embargo has been imposed on Somalia. A Maritime Security Patrol Area has been established by a multinational combined task force. All the security measures in which Acronymia takes pride have been taken in the pirate-infested waters. Yet despite this impressive show of technical strength the number of pirate incidents has continued to rise. It is almost as if this display of power had failed to intimidate them.

#page#That, of course, is exactly what has happened, and for good reason. As we have seen in other conflicts in recent years — currently, in some NATO forces in Afghanistan — the rules of engagement are counterproductive: Many navies participating in this armada are effectively prevented from defeating the pirates. The Law of the Sea, which governs the actions of some navies, holds that a patrolling warship must send a boat to a suspected pirate vessel and confirm its intent. Some navies have to land the pirates they capture on the African coast, where they promptly disappear. Others are forbidden to open fire on pirate vessels. Merchant ships are strongly discouraged from arming their crews or resisting the pirates — even though we admire the crew of Captain Phillips’s ship precisely because they regained control of their vessel by fighting for it. The 19th-century solution — namely, to wage war on the pirates as on an enemy power and destroy their property, ships, and villages — is mentioned only to be rejected. And these feeble half-measures are justified by a whole litany of excuses from politicians, lawyers, and ship owners to suggest that nothing can really be done about piracy except to avoid it if possible and to pay the Danegeld if not — or, just possibly, to bore the pirates to death with endless seminars on the new international law.

And piracy is not the only activity we thought the Victorians had vanquished forever that is making a comeback. Slavery too is returning — most visibly in the revival of what used to be called “the white slave trade” (i.e., sex trafficking). According to the State Department, between 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked for forced labor and sex worldwide each year — 80 percent of them women and girls — and 14,500 to 17,500 trafficking victims are brought into the U.S. each year. Chattel slavery still exists, and it is spreading. According to the advocacy group Free the Slaves, the number of chattel slaves in the world today is the highest in human history (though also the lowest as a percentage of the world population). However the statistics are dressed up, they still amount to at least 27 million slaves — a number we would have thought unimaginable in, say, 1955. As the liberal civilization of the West recedes and begins to lose influence in world institutions, so some of the evils it fought start to revive.

Naturally the pirates and the slavers interpret all this to mean that they have sensibly engaged in low-risk but highly profitable professions. And until these two recent incidents, their judgment looked correct. We had heroes of skill, and heroes of courage, but no heroes of prudence. Now we have all three — and as a result civilization has won a modest victory. But will we continue to win victories against the reviving vices of barbarism? That will depend on whether we have the firmness to enforce the truths of our liberal civilization on anarchy, violence, cruelty, and oppression — or, instead, choose to slip back into defending ourselves with empty words and legalistic maneuvers. In making that choice over the next eight years the president will be pulled in two quite opposite directions — both confusingly signposted “liberalism.” It will be interesting to see which way he prudently jumps.


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