Pirates (the word peiraô is Greek for ‘to try’ or ‘make the attempt’) were common in the ancient world. They appear everywhere from Hellenistic novels to stories about Pompey’s clean-up of the Cilician robbers. Some random thoughts.
1) Hit ‘em where they are. If we review how the Romans, Venetians, British, and Americans dealt with piracy, then we arrive at the same conclusion: forces go ashore and destroy docks, ships, and houses of the pirate community—and soon leave. There is no reason to nation-build in Somalia, only to blast apart pirates on the water; and when they strike, tit-for-tat simply to bomb or send a missile at their point of return on land.
2) A larger malady. Pirates are always a symptom of international instability and global inability or unwillingness to stamp them out. At present we are at a dangerous juncture. The US, in the “post-American” world that Obama is trying to articulate abroad through apologetics and promises of mulitpolarity, cannot or won’t exercise unilateral leadership. And under postmodern notions of morality, and in the present climate of “We’re not George Bush’s Guantanamo-renditions-wiretapping-preemptive America,” it makes it hard, if we are to remain saintly, to do much of anything at all, except the occasional heroic efforts that we just witnessed to free hostages.
Moreover, there is a whiff in the air that the pirates have some connection, remote or not, with Islamic terrorism, or maybe it is that they are seen as 1990s-style Somali victims in need of understanding, or bad memories from the Blackhawk Down days. In any case, bombing the crap out of them if they don’t quit is apparently provocatively Neanderthal—while letting the clueless ship or yacht that falls into their clutches is, well, a higher code of moral restaint. The pirates (“We are not afraid of America”), of course, all know this.
3) Pirates are nice guys. In the last thirty years in the academic world, several theses have been published romanticizing pirates, in the manner they are celebrated in popular Disneyland-like culture—misunderstood jolly fellas, prone to a little excess from time to time.
For the deskbound academic who does not work on a ocean-going container ship, history’s pirate can be a Robin-Hood redistributionist who takes from the mercantile class and spreads booty to the poor; or he is anarchist who defies the bourgeoisie norms of an oppressive society; or he is a sexual libertine—a cross-dresser, a sexually ambiguous Steppenwolf, a polymorphously perverse rebel, who has said no to the straightjacket of heterosexual norms; or he is an egalitarian who constructs an alternate “pirate community” that is without racial, gender, and class bias. There are all sorts of noble Jewish, black, and female pirates in academic discourse, far better folk that the British navy that tried to stamp them out.
I say all that since it seems such rarified academic nonsense has filtered down to popular discussions of the Somali pirates. While watching television, I heard Geraldo hope that Iran (that exports into Iraq shaped charges to blow up Americans) will soon join us to patrol the seas for civilization. Hillary let out that now well-known weird cackle about the problem. Some in the State Department worried that killing the pirates might “escalate” the tensions, inasmuch as heretofore they have been largely “nonviolent.” Such strange reactions to all this.
4) Then there is the “they are not serious threat” chorus. In global terms, perhaps not. But they represent a further cheapening of international customs and norms, akin to the composition of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, or the blind eye accorded Russian assassination abroad. In response, why make the world angry at us for such a trifle? In the manner that it is not worth reminding the Russians that they shouldn’t bully former Soviet republics or cut off European energy supplies, or not worth reminding al Arabiya that radical Islam is a fascistic creed that thrives off the larger gender apartheid, religious intolerance, statism, authoritarianism and tribalism of the Islamic world, so too making a big deal about pirates just isn’t worth the hassle and loss of cool.
5) We are the World. I don’t think Obama is going to galvanize an international task force to deal with the problem, for reasons other than a high-seas hijacking does not reach the level of Islamic killers in Waziristan. Note that as Obama swept the globe in various ways trashing Bush and the Bush adminstration, no other leader was so self-critical.
Ms. Merkel said nothing about the odious Gerhard Schroeder, now the pawn of the Russian Gazprom. Brown did not trash Blair, despite his unpopular stance on Iraq. Sarkozy does not like Chirac, but did not apologize for the latter’s efforts to subvert the trans-Atlantic alliance. America alone sends the message that America has been the source of recent world problems, so I doubt that it can suddenly then revert to Bush’s proactive policies, and yet won’t find too many who can or will help (cf. Afghanistan) under the new multilateralism. The gospel is now “Keep the apologies up; we love America when you say you’re sorry; but so sorry, we can’t help you clean up George Bush’s mess—but at least we are rooting for you now.”
And then there are the apologies. Cannot China match Obama, evoking Tibet and Mao’s killing fields? Or won’t Russia give us a tiny mea culpa for the 300,000 killed in Chechnya? If the Germans won’t trump our supposed genocide of Native Americans with more remorse about the Holocaust, can they at least explain their profit-mongering commerce with criminal states like Iran?
So the game is now that we wish to be multipolar and multilateral—and yet remain unilateral in our apologies and serial trashing of our prior commander in chief? Meanwhile our TVs are saturated with stories about two-bit thugs with AK-47s “terrorizing” the global shipping lanes. Strange world.