Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Somali Pirates

Piracy is wrong.
Let's start with that assumption, and let's cast it in stone, because every time I tackle issues like this people start bleating that I'm defending the indefensible. So:
Piracy is wrong.
There are a lot of things that are just plain flat-out wrong. Picking a few entirely at random:
Hijacking airliners and flying them into buildings--wrong.
Occupying a country, bulldozing houses, killing innocents--wrong.
Genocide, whether a "little" one like Serbia or the Big One that spread across Europe in the forties...wrong, wrong, wrong.

What do all these things have in common, besides the fact that they happen? Or to put it another way, if they're so wrong, why do they still happen?

Religious people answer such imponderables with phrases that sound suitably impressive..."it's a mystery", or "God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform"...each one saying I dunno...

This "problem of evil" that has puzzled humanity for millennia has a simple answer, actually. Really simple. Why do wrong things happen? Because somebody somewhere thinks they're right. Oh, and the people who think otherwise aren't around to put a stop to them, of course.

You can run down the catalogue of evil, from little to huge, and see this is true for yourself. Hitler thought he was doing a good thing, a noble thing, and he managed to get the vast majority of twelve million Germans to agree with him. The nineteen 9/11 plotters had sound (to them) political and religious reasons for what they did. Likewise these Somali pirates think piracy is the Right Thing To Do.

They have different reasons for thinking so. Most of them, I suspect, think piracy is the "right" thing to do because it happens to work, i.e., make them rich and famous within their circles. 
Some of them lay a veneer of social responsibility on their self-centeredness: they think piracy is justifiable on the grounds of redress for past and ongoing atrocities perpetrated upon the coast of Somalia...the dumping of waste, including nuclear waste, and rampant overfishing that has depleted once vast fish stocks nearly to extinction. To me, at least, this complicates matters somewhat. No, it does not make the seizure of ships in any way right, but it does make it in many ways more understandable. 

I'm reading A Man In Full, by Tom Wolfe, this month. (Great read, by the way.) There's a chapter wherein our hero (as opposed to the man who thinks he's a  hero) has, quite literally, a day from hell. He starts the day down but not out, bloodied by prior misfortune but unbowed. And absolutely everything that can go wrong--even some things you'd think couldn't--does. He fails what should have been a simple employment test. His car is towed, through no fault of his own. In trying to track the car down and retrieve it, he must make a humiliating phone call, requesting money...which he then loses, again through no fault of his own. At the end of the day, he's penniless, stranded in a really bad area, and still without his car. And then he sees his vehicle on a forklift, and it's being casually damaged, and he...just...snaps. He doesn't really throw a punch: he's mostly trying to defend himself, but he suddenly finds himself clutching a billy club, appearing to brandish it, over the body of his assailant, who looks from our hero's perspective like he's having a heart attack. You probably don't need me or Tom Wolfe to tell you what it looks like to the cop who shows up to haul our hero off to jail.

That set-piece really got me to thinking about my breaking point. I've had some pretty shitty days in my life, and I've even snapped a time or two, but I've never done anything to land my ass in jail. Maybe I'm just lucky...because reading that scene, I was entirely sympathetic to the little guy, shit upon at every turn. That could be me, I thought. He's not right, exactly (hell, that's his refrain through the whole chapter, 'this is--NOT RIGHT!')--but he's sure understandable.

Suppose I'm a Somali fisherman. I've lost my mother, father, and two brothers to radiation sickness they contracted in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, when radioactive waste washed ashore. Foreign vessels are forever threatening my livelihood, and most of my town is starving or close to it.  Am I going to continue to lead this life, or am I going to do something about it?

And let's say I decide to do something about it. I join a group of pirates and we successfully seize a ship. We have plans to hold the captain for ransom but American sharpshooters come and kill me and three of my mates. 

Now, what does my one surviving brother do? Does he move to America and become prosperous? If he does, I'll haunt that sonovabitch.

It raises some difficult moral questions. I don't believe in negotiating with terrorists...but how many terrorists consider themselves terrorists? And trying to sort out who's just acting out of his own poisonous self-interest from who's got a Cause, and then weighing the relative merits of that wonder so many people opt to just bomb the shit out of 'em. Bombing's easy. Thinking's harder.

So now (great heroics here) the captain of the Maersk Alabama is back home. But piracy continues undaunted; indeed, this morning I heard that pirates had captured two freighters and two fishing boats for their fleet; they had also attempted to capture a U.S. cargo ship. 

I can't help but think that the American response, as natural as it was, fell short. Or perhaps the American motivation fell short. They basically exerted only enough force to get their captain back. If you're a pirate, what does that tell you? It might make me rethink attacking another American target, but hey...there are many ships in the sea. Piracy against Americans: wrong. Piracy against other nations...?

What's needed, if we truly  believe these pirates to be terrorists--and doesn't what they do fit the dictionary definition?--is a concerted international effort that'll convince them they're in the wrong no matter what vessel they attack. And then, in recognition that some of them have a Cause that's at least halfway legitimate, we could patrol their waters against the fishing trawlers and the dumpers.

We won't do this, of course. Too expensive, for one thing. For another, it requires an almost alien mindset that fails to differentiate between the First World and the Third. We won't be seeing that mindset take root on this planet for a few hundred years yet. Unless it does. It could well get to the point where we have to start thinking as if were were one species if we want to survive the next few hundred years. Imagine that.

1 comment:

Rocketstar said...

Nice post Ken.

The way to resolve it is to not do wrong to others in the first place. It's unfortuante that the perpetrators of the wrong done to the Somali coast can not be pinpointed. This is just another example of the first world taking advantage of the Third world.

Tonight my 5 year old has a soccer game and everytime I look at that soccer ball i think of the 11 year Thialand boy or girl that made it for little to no pay after working an 18 hour day. I feel bad but what are you going to do?

It is truely a cruel world.