I am an armchair seafarer with cred. I grew up in a seaside village in Connecticut where many old houses sported Widow Walks and I spent two years as an expat in Bermuda, which is as close to being at sea as one can get without actually sailing about . . . come to think of it, I recently read of the launching of the world’s largest cruise ship and it’s dimensions were practically the size of the island of Bermuda, so there you go. As a child I read Robin Lee Graham’s Dove, the tale of his five year solo sailing trip around the world and I dreamed of doing the same some day. I was obsessed with Jacques Cousteau, still am really, and I fully admit to fantasizing that I was aboard the Calypso during my days of Turtle Tagging in Bermuda (my Bermudian shipmates now know why I insisted they speak in French accents only).
I understand the strong desire to go to sea, despite the perils of seafaring. They told Columbus he would sail right off the edge of the earth didn't they? But he took to the waters with little trepidation. Since ancient times, tales of storms, sea monsters, and sirens have returned to land on the lips of sailors, and what good has it done? Has it thwarted others from setting sail? No! To the contrary, the fools keep coming. And for as long as men have been traveling the oceans, there have been pirates. Once people figured out that the ocean was a great way import and export, the pirates figured out the ocean was a great venue for thievery.
Funny thing is, modern society seems to think that pirates are a thing of the past, only to be conjured in modern times by Johnny Depp and old scratchy films like Captain Blood. But yesterday’s news reminded the world that pirates are alive and well off the coast of Somalia and stretching far into the waters of the Indian Ocean. I have been fascinated with stories of Somalian Pirates for a couple of years now -- I won’t claim to have read every word written about them or to have solutions to the problem, but I will say that ultimately my interest in them is born of my wonder of the mystery of what happens on the sea. I used to listen to Harbor Radio when I lived in Bermuda and late at night one could hear the most horrendous dramas playing out: a sinking sail boat, a tanker caught in a storm, the airlifting of a mortally ill sailor . . . these were things that Land People knew nothing about. It was an unseen world.
Four Americans were murdered by Somali pirates yesterday and the story is still unfolding. What we do know is that their luxury yacht was captured by the pirates only a few days ago and then the U.S. Navy shadowed the yacht for many miles while attempting to negotiate the release of the American hostages. The New York Times tell us there was a breakdown in talks over money sometime early yesterday and “the situation quickly went south from there.” The Navy is claiming the pirates fired their weapons first and the pirates are claiming the Navy fired first. And now? The Navy is holding several Somali pirates prisoner on board a U.S. Naval ship and what they’ve got now is a Hot Potato.
I was amazed at comments in the New York Times and even among some of my Facebook friends. It quickly became apparent to me that this may be the first time people have read about pirates off the eastern coast of Africa -- kidnappings and hijackings have been occurring for many years now, but it took the killing of Americans to bring this international problem to the forefront in the States. There were calls to dispose of the pirates at sea and to commence air raids on Somali villages, “That’ll teach ‘em to mess with Americans!” There seems to be no collective memory of the failed U.S. mission in Mogadishu in 1993 (see Black Hawk Down) and no logical thought put into these reactionary solutions.
Slaughtering them wouldn't be right, bringing them to the U.S. for trial wouldn't be right either. They should be returned to the Somali government to stand trial really and again, this is another non-solution, because the Somalis won't try them. Somalia needs to be held responsible for the actions of their citizens in international waters. The U.S. and countries who use the Indian Ocean need to rely heavily on diplomatic tools to solve Somalia's problems. This is a problem of poverty at it's base, plain and simple. And so far the Somali pirates have been doing alright for themselves -- they earned a cool £650,000 for the safe return of British pleasure sailors Paul and Rachel Chandler back in November.
Death means little or nothing to the pirates. If we kill them, more will take their place. Showing strength and force won't frighten them -- there must be a concerted effort to work with Somalia to stop the trend of piracy. The Wikipedia entry on Somali Pirates sums up the answer to this plight quite nicely, “Ultimately, many authors argue that the long term solution to Somali piracy is political securitisation. Governments would have to employ socioeconomic measures such as poverty alleviation and good governance in order to deal with piracy (and even terrorism) effectively. In particular, a sustainable solution requires the establishment not only of effective governance but also the rule of law, reliable security agencies, and alternative employment opportunities for the Somali people.”
And what do I think of the Americans who lost their lives yesterday? It is a fact that they were fervent missionaries and when I think of missionaries, only one image comes to mind -- yop, Klaus Kinski in Fitzcarroldo, a little feverish German in a white linen suit and Panama hat dead set on bringing opera to the people of the Amazon. He succeeds in maiming, murdering, and going completely insane. And he destroys a perfectly lovely riverboat in the process. The voice of Caruso tames no wild beast, especially not Kinski. So there you have it, I believe missionaries are just as extreme as pirates and terrorists are.
I read a news release in Reuters last year that caused me to write a short story about the pirates: “Somalia’s transitional government called on Russia on Friday to explain why it had cut 10 Somali pirates adrift in the Gulf on Aden without navigation equipment or much hope of survival. Russian forces last week stormed a hijacked oil tanker in a rescue operation that killed one pirate. Russia said 10 others arrested were later set loose aboard one of the small vessels they used in the attack. A military official said they were stripped of their weapons and navigation equipment. Russian media later quoted a military source saying the pirates were now likely dead.“
The story, I Was A Pirate, was my attempt to be there, get inside the skin of a pirate. Flawed as the story might be, it accomplished something very important for me personally -- it allowed me to see both sides, which I can only hope the powers that be can do in the next few days. The Russians scuttled their captured pirates without any international remorse, but the U.S. Navy won’t be able to so simply dispose of their booty of pirates. I suppose many thought new pirating would be discouraged by the Russian’s actions of last year, but it was only a temporary solution, a singular solution for that particular incident. The world will be watching the Navy over the next few days, as will I. Whatever happens, I predict pirating will prevail for some time to come.