Entry from November 20, 2008

Can we at least hope that the growth in international piracy will put an end to the era of the cool pirate? The idea of pirates as rock stars avant la lettre that we see in the (so far) three installments of the fabulously lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean movies depended on their inhabiting a cartoonish version of the 17th century — when, as everyone now knows, those they preyed upon were all slave-traders and imperialists anyway and so, presumably, deserved what they got. As I once pointed out in The American Spectator pirate-chic is one indication of the extent to which the old unofficial culture has lately become the official culture, so that, now, instead of teaching their children the moral law as it relates to robbery with violence — or anything much else either — parents take them to pirate theme parks and dress them up as adorable little pirates themselves.

Of course, I am but dreaming. Today’s USA Today might make the handsome concession that the pirates of Somalia “are only a little like the images of the daring, swashbuckling thieves who have gallivanted through Hollywood movies or adventure stories that have been passed on for generations,” but that little is apparently enough to ensure that, as David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey have pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, duly constituted authority remains almost as solicitous of the pirates’ human rights as it would be of Johnny Depp’s. Jeffrey Gettleman in the New York Times notes that

Even if the naval ships manage to catch pirates in the act, it is not clear what they can do. In September, a Danish warship captured 10 men suspected of being pirates cruising around the Gulf of Aden with rocket-propelled grenades and a long ladder. But after holding the suspects for nearly a week, the Danes concluded that they did not have jurisdiction to prosecute, so they dumped the pirates on a beach, minus their guns.

With all of his newspaper’s far-famed penchant for nuance — and diagnosing crime as a symptom of social ills — Mr Gettleman is something of an apologist for the pirates. Not only have they been driven to piracy by environmental pollution and overfishing, he says, but they are somewhat cool guys, just like Jack Sparrow. “Somalia’s seafaring thieves,” he writes, “are not like the Barbary pirates, who terrorized European coastal towns hundreds of years ago and often turned their hostages into galley slaves chained to the oars. Somali pirates are known as relatively decent hosts, usually not beating their hostages and keeping them well-fed until payday comes.” And very rich paydays they are too, with ransoms now regularly topping $1 million. Some $30 million has been paid by ship-owners to pirates just this year. Success in business, even the piracy business, always carries with it a certain self-justification.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey tell us that

The key problem is that America”s NATO allies have effectively abandoned the historical legal rules permitting irregular fighters to be tried in special military courts (or, in the case of pirates, admiralty courts) in favor of a straightforward criminal-justice model. Although piracy is certainly a criminal offense, treating it like bank robbery or an ordinary murder case presents certain problems for Western states.

That’s putting it mildly. “When coalition warships board pirate ships, they dispose of the weapons, but have to let the suspects go, Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of the 5th Fleet, told USA Today on Wednesday. ‘That is the single biggest shortfall that we have. We could have a huge effect if we could solve that problem.’”

This of course provides us with a new and interesting variation on the debate, if you can call it that, over combating terrorism as something analogous either to warfare or to law enforcement — the former approach being that of the Bush administration and the latter usually favored by the Democrats. It is precisely where “crime” is not contained within civil society and so made subject to law and the courts that, as the allegedly go-it-alone Bush administration would argue, a war-footing becomes necessary. In war, you don’t give the enemy the benefit of the presumption of innocence and the protection of the law. Yet many of the critics of President Bush, including the man who is about to take over for him, have damned him for thus choosing to make war on terrorists rather than sending some suitably souped up posse to go and arrest them. One way we’ll soon be seeing if they have the courage of their convictions is when the new administration lives up to its promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and free its inmates to resume their terrorist careers. Another is in whether it will choose to deal with the ever-growing problem of piracy the way Thomas Jefferson and James Madison did or by continuing to plead legal restraints and human rights as reasons to allow them to continue their operations.


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