Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Yo ho ho...

I know this is off my usual blogging wavelength, but I couldn't resist. Being a Coast Guard veteran and a member of the Navy League, I'm a bit more attuned to the modern problem of piracy than most people. To many moderns whose only exposure to piracy has been books like Treasure Island and movies like Captain Blood and the recent Pirates of the Caribbean series, piracy seems somehow romantic, almost chivalrous.

The reality is both more prosaic and more brutal. Pirates have been the scourge of the seas as long as men have shipped goods by water, and if the term "scourge of the seas" conjures up images of Johnny Depp, you need to think again. Because a ship is a self-contained society, separated from the law and enforcement mechanisms of land, anyone who seizes control of a ship has absolute mastery of those aboard. When pirates take a vessel, they're usually interested in the cargo - the crew and any passengers are an inconvenience because they are an incentive to a rescue attempt. In a captured ship, anyone aboard is effectively under a death sentence. The best they can hope for is being held for ransom, and a more likely fate is savage execution. The fate of any women doesn't bear considering.

It doesn't take much for piracy to prosper - usually just a lawless country, what the modern media would call a rogue state. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the nations of the Barbary Coast of North Africa were such states. The famous line about "the shore of Tripoli" in the Marine Corps Hymn is a reference to the Marine Corps role in the taming of the Barbary Pirates which operated out of those states. There was nothing swashbuckling or romantic about them. The major world wars of the 20th century and the powerful navies that arose around them put piracy in abeyance, but with the dawn of the 21st century and the rise of various lawless areas around the world, piracy has returned. Particularly dangerous are the Straits of Malacca, along the remote western shores of Myanmar and Malaysia, and the waters around the Horn of Africa, hard by the lawless "nation" of Somalia.

The piracy near Somalia has been getting more attention of late. The most recent incident was a major score - the capturing of a supertanker carrying about $100,000,000 worth of crude oil - but piracy had been on the upswing in that area for some years. I find it interesting that following the seizure of the supertanker, the "government" of Somalia (such as it is) stepped forward to announce that it would rescue the vessel "by force if necessary.". Here's a hint, minister - these are pirates. Force will be necessary.

The impact it has on all of us is indirect but inevitable. The more piracy on the seas, the higher insurance rates are for shipping. Higher rates get passed on in the form of higher transport costs, which find their way into the prices we pay. Since one of the world's piracy hot spots is right by where much of the world's oil floats on its way to market, part of the higher oil prices will be a "piracy tax".

My bet? Another piracy incident or two like the taking of this supertanker, and you'll see a multinational coalition steaming toward Somalia to deal with the problem at its root. Navies came into existence to deal with pirates, and they've never forgotten that mission. Even ships from countries at war have been known to set aside their difference long enough to deal with pirates. So if you hear of such a thing, don't be surprised, and don't feel sympathetic toward the pirates. They deserve what they get.

1 comment:

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