Monday, February 28, 2011

Piracy vs. Society: what is justice?

Pirates of old have become nearly romantic figures in modern times.  The colorful legends, the ambience of purloined wealth, and the distinct attraction of Johnny Depp's spacey Capt. Jack Sparrow all lend the historical pirate an air of the swashbuckling antihero.  It's what you might get if you combined Walter J. Mitty and Robin Hood, maybe with a dash of James T. Kirk.

But that's not how piracy was then.  They were a cutthroat bunch, fully aware their lives were forfeit if captured and therefore highly motivated to not be captured.  Their faster ships and heavy armament made them a dangerous force to encounter in one-to-one combat.  Then having made away with their prize, the pirates would put in at some safe port of call, spend up their booty, carouse and drink and listen carefully for rumors of the next richly-laden merchant heading into the hunting grounds.

New pirates aren't like that.  Their methods are cruder - if I can use that word in the context of criminal acts - accosting larger ships full of unarmed noncombatants from small craft, as small as ten meters in length, off the coast of whatever country has poor government and little offshore policing.  Somalia's been in the news a lot lately for coming apart at the seams, with its waters lousy with pirates taking everything from tankers to luxury yachts.  Once the armed pirates have the vessels' crews and passengers at their command, the demands begin: ransoms for the tanker's cargo, ransoms for the crewmen, ransoms for the passengers.  All of this money becomes...what?

Cars, houses, women, drugs, and guns.  Lots of guns.

Mostly once the ransom is paid, pirates release their hostages unharmed.  There's been a lot of noise in the news over the last week though: four Americans shot when the pirates were fired upon.  One pirate killed, the rest captured, four dead hostages.

Policing the relatively lawless zone around Somalia has been inconsistent.  Several nations send surface craft into the area, interdict operations from aircraft, capture and then all too often release pirates once their weapons are confiscated.  Release?  How's that going to do any good?  They'll get more guns and try again.

I hate the death penalty.  Hate it forever and that's not apt to change.  But when I hear about attacks like this and all the others, I wonder if a death penalty is exactly the right punishment for the pirates.

This is a war.  Assaulting a ship without provocation cannot ever be mistaken for a peaceful act.  Some pirates try to excuse their actions by calling themselves the National Volunteer Coast Guard, and while that may have ever been true, commit the first act of piracy and all your good intentions and history are out the window.

So: the next crew of pirates caught in the act needs to be tossed over the side.  Blow their boats up and throw them over the side.  Go find more of them and do it again.  Keep doing it until no one dares whisper the word "pirate" except as an epithet, the hiss of hatred that it ought to be.  Better still, toss the pirates over the side, and use their boats to equip an actual Coast Guard for Somalia.

Why so harsh?  Because they disturb all our peace.  They assault Chinese ships, Myanmarese ships, American ships.  They attack innocents going about their daily lives, workers in the middle of their business days.  They steal fishermen's livelihoods from them, so the pirates themselves can go and accost more innocent sailors.  They have utterly rejected social dignity, the basic respect of one for another, in order to take from someone else so they can have more.  Whether they do it as a means of relieving their own poverty or not has no bearing, it cannot be tolerated.  The pirates attack us all, and continue to get away with it.

When in captivity, when conveyed to a court, the pirates may well cry asylum and declare they cannot be sent home because they will receive unjust treatment.  But what is just?  A hundred years ago justice would be swift indeed, a long drop at the end of a short rope, following by an ignominious burial at sea.  One pirate less was always a good thing, and no worries about keeping him alive and secured aboard ship to face trial on land, where he would be found guilty and summarily hanged.  The at-sea approach saves a lot of time and hassle.

So Leifer's solution, his very harsh, gritty solution, is the most direct: blast them out of the water.  Don't pick up the survivors.  Rescue every legitimate sailor that you can, and drown the pirates who would assault them.

Let their bodies feed the fish they claim to be protecting.  Then there will be more fish.  That's good for everybody.

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