Pirates – hostis humani generis
If you've been following the news, you know that Capt. Richard Phillips is free, and three Somali pirates won't be sailing under the Jolly Roger anymore.
To most people, this must seem like a pretty bizarre interlude amidst news of the economy, foreign affairs, etc. Most people are only marginally aware that there still are pirates in this day and age.
Piracy, the capture and looting of cargo transported by sea, is a very old business. Three-thousand-year-old wrecks of ships recovered by archaeologists from the Aegean Sea, show evidence their cargo was looted and the ships deliberately sunk.
The Roman statesman Cicero called pirates, hostis humani generis - “enemies of all mankind.”
The first foreign war fought by the United States was a Naval/Marine Corps expedition sent by Thomas Jefferson against the Barbary Pirate state of Tripoli, in what is now Libya. The capture of the pirate state's capitol is commemorated in the Marine Corps Hymn, “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli...”
Piracy diminished, but never entirely died out, when steam ships became faster than any wooden sailing vessel. Steam ships required coal for fuel, and extensive infrastructure to build and maintain their steel hulls. Pirate ships which were formerly pretty self-sufficient when powered by wind, and able to affect their own repair and maintenance with available wood, just weren't able to catch merchant ships anymore.
In effect, civilization doomed piracy.
But piracy survived in places where ships have to pass through narrow seas near coasts not under the control of civilized states. The Gulf of Aden, the Straights of Malacca, the Philippine archipelago are all areas long dangerous to commercial shipping and wealthy yachtsmen.
In modern times, pirates operate from swift motorboats darting out from rugged coasts, or launched from harmless-looking mother ships.
Pirates, then and now, require a marketplace to sell stolen goods, and modern financial apparatus to arrange the transfer of ransom payments for captured ships and seamen.
And, just as in Jefferson's administration, they thrive because the merchant firms and governments they operate under find it easier and cheaper to pay ransom than take on the pirates.
In Jefferson's time the European states had been paying ransom for hundreds of years. If you were among those fortunate enough to be ransomed like Miguel Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. Some historians estimate that more Europeans were captured and taken into slavery in North Africa, than West Africans were taken into slavery in the Americas.
And in both cases, the slave catchers and sellers operated from North African Islamic states which grew rich on the trade.
Now U.S. ships and seamen are once again targets of pirates. President Barack Obama gave orders to act decisively at the discretion of the on-site Naval commanders, and deserves great credit for this. The Europeans are again playing the ransom game, and the pirates are even now holding dozens of European hostages and several ships awaiting ransom.
Congressman Donald Payne, (D-N.J.) chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee's subcommittee on Africa, traveled at some personal risk to assess the situation on the ground in Somalia, and also deserves credit.
Unfortunately, he also came back mouthing more of the “we have to address the root causes” drivel our civilization seems afflicted, and hamstrung by.
Congressman, permit me to explain the truth about “root causes.”
The reasoning of a pirate or any other extortionist goes like this, “You have it. I want it. I'm strong enough to take it. You're not strong enough to keep it.”
Keep that in mind and the path to a solution to this problem should be, if not easy, at least relatively straightforward.