Somalia’s Pirates: The Laws of Supply And Demand

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Come to think of it, there’s not much difference between the rent the Somali pirates are extorting and the bribes the United States government pays to Sunni militias in Iraq to co-opt them. Instead of hanging pirates, maybe the U.S. should pay off some pirates and have them keep other would-be pirates in check.

[The Media Watch]


Some articles, you read and you just have to respond to: such is the case with the November 25th commentary, "Why Don’t We Hang Pirates Anymore?" by Wall Street Journal columnist, Bret Stephens. It’s sad to imagine that these are the type of writers that shape, guide, and God forbid, inform public opinion –including those of policymakers—in the United States.

It’s one of the most uninformed, elitist and bigotted commentary that I’ve read recently.

Stephens is outraged by the recent proliferation of piracy off the coast of war-torn Somalia and concludes that it’s basically due to barbarism and that the solution must be borrowed from the 18th century--summary execution by hanging, of any of the pirates, when apprehended.

His commentary is replete with ethno-centric myopia and religious bigotry. He must be aware of it; if not, then the commentary is even much sadder.

So, why have the Somali pirates attacked as many as 90 vessels already, this year alone? Consider the lunacy parroted by Stephens: "The view of senior U.S. military officials seem to be, that there is no controlling legal authority. Title 18 Chapter 81 of the United States code establishes a sentence of life in prison for foreigners captured in the acts of piracy. But, crucially, the law is only enforceable against pirates who attack U.S.-flagged vessels, of which today there are few."

Does this columnist, who writes for one of the world’s major newspapers really believe that the Somali pirates –presuming they even know of the U.S. law—ponder over these issues and would be deterred from their hijacking missions on the high seas if the vessels were U.S.-flagged? Are the legal consequences of their actions really some of the issues factoring into the pirates’ actions? I very much doubt this.

And it’s certainly not for a lack of sophistication or intelligence, on the part of the Somalis. After all, they clearly have intelligence about the movement of large vessels –and that’s how they hijacked the Saudi vessel with $100 million worth of oil. They also use GPS devices to get to their targets and back, and they have sophisticated communications systems, including satellite telephones. Why, they might even read newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal online, including columns such as Stephens’. They are, without doubt, not your grandfather’s pirates.

Yet Stephens goes on to discuss other irrelevant issues, such as the inadequacy of international law, in dealing with the Somali pirates—he is obviously warming up towards something.

Moreover, the columnist notes, captured Somali pirates presented another quandary. "The British foreign office recently produced a legal opinion warning Royal Navy ships not to take pirates captive, lest they seek asylum in the U.K. or otherwise face repatriation in jurisdictions where they might be dealt with harshly, in violation of the British Human Rights Act."

In March 2006, Stephens adds, the U.S. Navy took 11 pirates captive but ended up handing them over to Kenyan jurisdiction. "The injured spent weeks aboard the USS Nassau, enjoying First World Medical care." Need I even bother characterizing this writer’s mindset? His words here reveal much about him.

So, the prescription Stephens offers can’t be surprising; and he presents it with a sense of glee.

Cicero, Stephens notes, considered pirates "hostis humani generis—enemies of the human race," fit to be dealt with accordingly. So Stephens offers the solution, as recorded in a 18th century legal dictionary: "A piracy attempted on the Ocean, if the Pirates are overcome, the Takers may immediately inflict a Punishment by Hanging them up at the Mainyard End; though this is understood where no legal judgment may be obtained."

Are these merely hypothetical philosophical musings of a clueless writer? Hardly, since Stephens continued: "Severe as the penalty may now seem (albeit necessary, since captured pirates were too dangerous to keep aboard on lengthy sea voyages), it succeeded in mostly eliminating piracy by the late 19th century—a civilizational achievement no less great than the elimination of smallpox a century later."

"Today, by contrast," Stephens mourns, "a Navy captain who takes captured pirates aboard his state-of-the-art warship will have a brig in which to keep them securely detained, and instantaneous communications through which he can obtain higher guidance and observe the rule of law."

Yet, less he is accused of bigotry, Stephens concedes: "Piracy, of course, is hardly the only form of barbarism at work today: There are the suicide bombers on Israeli buses, the stoning of Iranian women, and so on."

Isn’t the pattern obvious here? Can anyone believe that it’s merely a coincidence that all the alleged acts of barbarism are perpetrated by Muslims?

What about the wanton bombing raids by the U.S. military –"shock and awe"—and the attendant untold civilian deaths and unprecedented destruction during the initial stages of the U.S. invasion of Iraq? These actions will never cross Stephens’ imagination as acts of barbarism and possibly war crimes.

That millions of Americans, including children, live with hunger, below the poverty line, in a country with no shortage of multi-billionaires and multi-millionaires: these conditions will never occur to Stephens as barbarism incarnate. These are merely the effects of "market forces" the necessary "collateral damages" of unfettered U.S. capitalism.

What of the fact that untrammeled American capitalism has now pushed the system to the precipice—record unemployment; business closings; foreclosures; credit draught; multi-billion dollar federal corporate welfare--through greed, corruption, and outright theft on Wall Street: these are also presumably the necessary consequences of capitalism? Not barbarism for sure.

Yet, consider conditions in Somalia: A country that doesn’t manufacture arms and yet is awash with American and Russian supplied weapons; a former Soviet puppet state; a current U.S.-puppet state, further disintegrating; a nation with no law and order; and, a nation with no functioning government, schools, hospitals, or economy.

Tens of thousands, if not millions of restless young men, in a country abandoned by the rest of the world to resolve its conflict; and they see vessels sailing by laden with goods worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. Almost mocking their conditions of poverty and anarchy.

The Somalis could well argue that the world is getting what it deserves for abandoning Somalia. Why, they could even argue that they too are following their own peculiar form of market forces.

The laws of supply and demand; the rest of the world supplies the ships, and the Somalis demand the ransom.

Come to think of it, there’s not much difference between the rent the Somali pirates are extorting and the bribes the United States government pays to Sunni militias in Iraq to co-opt them. Instead of hanging pirates, maybe the U.S. should pay off some pirates and have them keep other would-be pirates in check.


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