The only likable pirates are the historical ones

Published 3:13 pm Wednesday, April 15, 2009

By Staff
We were delighted that on Easter the U.S. Navy rescued Capt. Richard Phillips, the American cargo ship captain who was held hostage by Somali pirates in a lifeboat off of that country’s coast for several days.
At the Washington Daily News, we frequently make pirate jokes in our editorials — it’s nearly obligatory when discussing Bath, for instance — but the thin young men at the Horn of Africa with speedboats and Kalishnakov assault rifles aren’t funny; they’re a menace.
Before the latest incident, the pirates hadn’t bothered direct U.S. interests very much. The ships they attacked were registered in tax havens like the Bahamas, and most crews were from third-world countries. About half of the roughly 200 sailors still held by the pirates are Filipino, for example.
Typically, the pirates don’t hurt anyone. They hijack a ship, park it off the Somali beach (really) and then collect a ransom, often in the millions of dollars.
It isn’t as though the Bahamian and Filipino navies are about to sail halfway around the world and shoot it out with the pirates.
The pirates do indirectly harm the U.S. and every other developed nation. They drive up the price of commerce in shipping lanes near key oil-producing regions, forcing ships to go the long way around Africa and shipping companies to pay millions of dollars in ransom.
They disrupt the lives of sailors, holding them captive. And they inject millions of dollars in foreign currency into a region rife with Islamic fundamentalists.
Many countries have sent patrols to the region. The Indians even sank one vessel, which was termed a pirate “mother ship.” The lone survivor ended up being a fisherman, not a pirate, and not much was heard on the anti-piracy front for a time after that.
The French, former colonial masters of Somalia’s neighbor, Djibouti, have also been in the area. The same day Capt. Phillips was captured, one hostage and two pirates were killed when French forces stormed a hijacked yacht. The French raid echoed two similar raids last year.
A few days later, three pirates were killed by snipers when U.S. forces rescued Phillips.
Some folks are worried that the uptick in pirate deaths will push pirates toward more violence in future hijackings, which continue.
One pirate spokesman said the pirates will be looking for Americans from whom to extract revenge.
Clearly, Somali piracy is a problem that needs to be solved. It affects other countries far more than it impacts the United States, but so far the United States has been among a very few countries to successfully combat the pirates.
A permanent solution requires fighting on shore in Somalia as well as at sea, U.S. officials have said.
But our public is tired of war, and we already have resources committed elsewhere.
We’re trying to leave Iraq without creating a globally cataclysmic civil war there, and hoping to redefeat the Taliban in nearby Afghanistan. At the same time, Americans are being held captive in North Korea and Iran, both countries that have controversial nuclear programs.
The solution is to help other countries fight the pirates. The U.S. already has a presence in Djibouti and boasts unparalleled transport abilities. We should take the lead in helping facilitate pirate hunting by those countries that are most affected.
We should ask Kenya and Egypt, much of whose shipping goes through the Suez Canal, to participate, and the Philippines — and anyone else willing to send men or money.
Certainly, their forces won’t be as surgical as our own. Every engagement won’t be three dead pirates, one captured pirate and the hostages rescued unharmed. The cost is worth bearing, though.
We like to romanticize Blackbeard’s legacy, and he is certainly a fun historical figure, but his golden age of piracy was over long before the American Revolution. Today’s world cannot tolerate outright brigands.