Thursday, April 16, 2009

The world is too much with us....

Or: Then I was inspired/Now I'm sad and tired....

This "pirate shooting" is starting to become extremely tedious. Lindsay Beyerstein gets the reaction to this exactly right:

I'm relieved that the Navy SEALs rescued the American hostage from Somali pirates. Their skill and professionalism was indeed impressive.

But really... Two days after the rescue, the banner headline on the front page of the Washington Post should not read "3 Rounds, 3 Dead Bodies." And if that's the front page headline, surely they don't need a second story about pirate-shooting in the same edition.

The American public is relishing the deaths of the pirates to a degree that's downright unseemly. Even Mother Jones has a post entitled "Obama is the pirate-killingest president ever."
Was the shooting justified? According to MSNBC, one "pirate" had a gun to the back of Capt. Phillips' head, and the other two popped their heads out of the lifeboat cover, making all three targets of opportunity. Fair enough. I'm relieved, too, for the sake of Capt. Phillips. Was there a real threat? Real enough, probably, though again, I agree with Lindsay: there should be a thorough investigation, as there would be with any police shooting in America.

But maybe it wasn't that simple. According to McClatchy:

According to Somalis with knowledge of the discussions, the pirates, who at one time had demanded $2 million for Phillips's release, had grown desperate with their situation — adrift under a searing sun in waters infested with sharks, staring at two massive Navy ships armed with guided missiles, running low on fuel and having spent their ammunition.

A relative of one of the pirates, who said he spoke with the men by satellite phone at about 3 p.m. — four hours before the Navy opened fire — said they "were getting scared" and trying to persuade the Americans to let them go in return for the captain's release.

"They were trying to save their own lives," said the relative, Hassan Mohammed Farah, speaking by phone from Haradheere, a coastal town in central Somalia where pirates are known to operate. "The only thing they could bargain with was the captain, but the Americans would not accept."

The pirates had appealed by satellite phone to other pirate groups to sail captive ships and hostages to the scene of the standoff, to put some pressure on the U.S. forces. But Guled Farah, who belongs to another pirate group that had hijacked a German ship last week, said that the presence of the U.S. vessels scared them off.

"Their little boat was surrounded," Farah said by phone from Haradheere. "We couldn't go to help them, and for that we are sorry."
Which is not to say the Navy SEALS didn't think an assault weapon pointed at the prisoner meant his life was in danger. But it adds to the issue exactly what Lindsay is calling for: a thorough investigation in which all the facts can be known. Sadly, judging from the comments to Lindsay's post, not everyone want to see that happen:

Are you crazy? By holding a weapon to an innocent hostage, these "pirates" forfeited any right to protection that may have had. The only issue the seals should have considered was whether they could end the situation without danger to the hostage. That the gunmen were teenagers is utterly irrelevant. They were old enough to wield AK47s, to engage in piracy, and to threaten an innocent man with death; they were old enough to be shot dead.
It's fair enough to question, as another comment does, the application of the term "teenagers" to people from Somalia. That is a term with a lot of cultural baggage around it, and while sounds very young to us, it may well be middle-age for Somalians. And still, it isn't about chronology, but about culture. Age in one culture may still mean immaturity, whereas in another it may mean adulthood.

But the comments don't dwell on such considerations, and only get worse:

This article is is a waste of server space. Pirates (in reality terrorists - we don't call people who commandeer airplanes "pirates" how is a ship any different) don't have rights. They aren't US citizens, they sure as hell don't afford us or their own countrymen any rights for that matter. I would imagine in a rugged place like Somalia, your middle-aged at 15 so I don't think age is a valid consideration here. Even in the United States minors who undertake "adult-like" endeavors are treated as such by the justice system. Regardless, it is open season on pirates. I and I would argue many others (unless they're winy "cause-heads")likely feel as though there would be no need for explanation if the Somali pirates were replaced with Americans under these EXACT circumstances. It is cause for celebration - America finally did something right.
This would be a good place to consider why so many Somalis turned to piracy. Because they have a weak central government? Because without a Hobbesian ruler, we have a Hobbesian state of nature, a "Lord of the Flies" nightmare?


In the past few weeks, a failed state that was forgotten for more than a decade once again made the world take notice. While Somalia's weak transitional government fails to assert control on land, a band of highly organized pirates have taken firm control of the country's sea lanes.
How long has this been going on? Well, Somalia's been a failed state for over a decade. The article quoted is from November, 2008. How did a "weak transitional government" lead to piracy? Well, because people are evil and vicious brutes, right? Nope:

The problem of piracy in Somalia originated about a decade ago because of disgruntled fishermen.

The headless state had no authority to patrol its tuna-rich coastal waters and foreign commercial vessels swooped in to cast their nets. This proved a slap in the face for Somalis, who saw these vessels as illegal and raking in profits at the expense of the local impoverished population. To make matters worse, there were reports that some foreign ships even dumped waste in Somali waters.

That prompted local fishermen to attack foreign fishing vessels and demand compensation. The success of these early raids in the mid-1990s persuaded many young men to hang up their nets in favor of AK-47s. Making the coastal areas lucrative for local fishermen again could encourage pirates to return to legitimate livelihoods.

Second, a fishery protection force will eliminate the pirates' source of legitimacy. The pirates' spokesman, Sugule Ali, told the international press last month that his men executed attacks to prevent illegal fishing and dumping in their waters.

Although this claim may seem thin, it matters to the pirates' public image and sense of legitimacy. If the international community steps in to address their concerns, they will lose the one pretense they continue to stand upon for internal support and credibility.
Now, if that analysis is anywhere near right, the solution to this problem would not be (surprise! surprise!) military, but simply regulatory. Attack the root of the tree of evil, rather than hack at its branches (like three men in a lifeboat, adrift at sea). Would it be better to attack Somalia? Or to protect it from foreigners, so the people there can make a living, marginal as it may be? Is it better to label them "terrorists" and so beyond the pale of human consideration? Or to consider alternatives that won't get anybody killed, and just might work. At least we should learn a bit more about the history of this problem:

Skeptics could argue that intimidation is just what these lawless bandits need. However, temporary crackdowns have not uprooted the problem yet. The Union of Islamic Courts brutally suppressed piracy during the brief period they controlled the Somali capital in 2006, but the pirates waited them out and resurged stronger than ever.
2006? Piracy in 2006? Did you know that? Did you know this had been going on for over a decade? Have any of us ever thought to treat these people as human beings, rather than as "criminals," as "pirates," as "terrorists"?

I think Dennis Perrin may be right: we prefer the Democrat's Michael Corleone to the GOP's Sonny. So much easier to cast ourselves as the ones who must use violence although we don't want to, than to consider solutions that don't require violence at all.

(links via Empire Burlesgue, which link was courtesy of moonbootica.)

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