Belmont Club

Shoot the hostage

Scott Carney of Wired asks a Somali pirate when they deem it advisable to ransom or kill sailors they capture off their coasts. Here are the highlights of the conversation.

  • No one will come to the rescue of a third-world ship with an Indian or African crew, so we release them immediately. But if the ship is from Western country or with valuable cargo like oil, weapons or then its like winning a lottery jackpot. …
  • Often we know about a ship’s cargo, owners and port of origin before we even board it. … The financiers are the most important since they organize and plan the big shot operations and are able to pay running cost[s]. Financiers always need to forge deals with traders, land cruiser owners, translators, business people to keep the supplies flowing during operations and manage the logistics. There is a long supply chain involved in every hijacking.
  • Hostages — especially Westerners — are our only assets, so we try our best to avoid killing them. It only comes to that if they refuse to contact the ship’s owners or agencies. Or if they attack us and we need to defend ourselves.

What’s really interesting in this discussion is the interplay between the valuation of life of the hostages and the likelihood the pirates will kill them. Third World citizens have lives so valueless the pirates don’t even consider them worth killing. On the other hand, the more hand-wringing a hostage situation is likely to provoke, the more valuable the hostages are. Suddenly they are worth a bullet. Of interest too is the implicit notion that the financiers, probably operating out of the capitals of the world with their faxes, databases, telephones and contacts are the masterminds of entire operation.

The argument can be made that regarding any captive taken as expended and sinking any ship taken would reduce the incentive to piracy to nearly zero. But the pirates know the West won’t do that, so the game continues. In Hollywood, the solutions are typically simple. In Speed, one of the protagonists argues that the best way to end a hostage standoff is to the shoot the hostage.

Harry: “Alright, pop quiz: The airport. Gunman with one hostage, he’s using her for cover, he’s almost to the plane. You’re a hundred feet away. (Long pause) Jack?”
Jack: “Shoot the hostage.””
Harry: “What?”
Jack: “Take her out of the equation. Go for the good wound and he can’t get to the plane with her. Clear shot”
Harry: “You are deeply nuts, you know that? ‘Shoot the hostage’… jeez…”

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