(Photo-illustration: Everett Bogue / t r u t h o u t)
Where there is a sea, there are pirates.
- Greek Proverb
It's a very odd time to be alive in the United States today. Two wars, a staggering economy, domestic political upheaval, and now, what, pirates? America was still in short pants the last time piracy got this much attention around here. Back then, what came to be known as the Barbary Wars were waged against African piracy by presidents George Washington and James Madison. According to GlobalSecurity.org:
The four Barbary States of North Africa - Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli - had plundered seaborne commerce for centuries. Surviving by blackmail, they received great sums of money, ships, and arms yearly from foreign powers in return for allowing the foreigners to trade in African ports and sail unmolested through the Barbary waters. They demanded tribute money, seized ships, and held crews for ransom or sold them into slavery. American merchant ships, no longer covered by British protection, were seized by Barbary pirates in the years after United States independence, and American crews were enslaved. In 1799, the United States agreed to pay $18,000 a year in return for a promise that Tripoli-based corsairs would not molest American ships. Similar agreements were made at the time with the rulers of Morocco, Algiers, and Tunis.
In 1805, Marines stormed the Barbary pirates' harbor fortress stronghold of Derna (Tripoli), commemorated in the Marine Corp Hymn invocation "To the Shores of Tripoli." Following the War of 1812, two naval squadrons under Commodores Decatur and Bainbridge returned to the Mediterranean. Diplomacy backed by resolute force soon brought the rulers of Barbary to terms and gained widespread respect for the new American nation. Decatur obtained treaties which eliminated the United States paying tribute. In the years immediately after the Napoleonic wars, which ended in 1815, the European powers forced an end to piracy and the payment of tribute in the Barbary states.
Washington and Madison, meet Barack Obama, the newest American president forced to deal harshly with murder and mayhem on the high seas. Over the last week, virtually all news in America was dominated by an attack on the unarmed cargo ship Maersk-Alabama by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The crew managed to fight off the attack, but the pirates made off with the ship's captain, Richard Phillips, and were demanding $2 million for his release.
Pirates attacking an American ship off the Horn of Africa, pirates repelled by the crew of that ship, pirates with an American hostage at gunpoint, well, that's just great theater. The TV news media broke out the banners and brass bands and bird-dogged the situation relentlessly. The conclusion, however, vaulted this crisis into a made-for-TV movie waiting to happen. According to The Washington Post:
The operation to rescue Capt. Richard Phillips involved dozens of Navy SEALs, who parachuted from an aircraft into the scene near dark Saturday, landing in the ocean. The SEALs were part of a group of Special Operations forces involved in the effort, according to military officials. The SEALs set up operations on the USS Bainbridge, which had been communicating with the four pirates via radio and had used smaller boats to make deliveries of food and water to their lifeboat.
US military observers thought that Phillips was about to be shot. SEAL snipers, who were positioned on a deck at the stern of the Bainbridge, an area known as the fantail, had the three pirates in their sights. The on-scene commander gave the snipers authority to fire. "As soon as the snipers had a clear shot at the guy who had the rifle, they shot him and the other two in the hatches," the senior military official said. A member of the Special Operations team slid down the tow line into the water and climbed aboard the lifeboat. Phillips was then put in a small craft and taken to the Bainbridge.
Coming soon to a network near you, but really, you don't need to wait, because it's already there. Every news organization - with the unsurprising exception of Fox, which probably didn't want to be seen giving credit to President Obama for fear of outraging their already-anti-Obama audience - exploded into a journalistic version of the "USA! USA! USA!" chant most often heard at sporting events and NRA rallies.
Make no mistake, there was much to celebrate here from the top right on down. President Obama gave authorization for the use of force if Captain Phillips' life was judged to be in immediate peril. Obama did not grandstand or wallow in the media spectacle - indeed, during the five days of the crisis, he was asked specifically by reporters about the situation and declined to comment - nor did he engage in the kind of hyper-violent military overreach that defined the previous administration.
When the decision to use violence arrived, it was executed with unimaginable precision, and when it was all over, not one civilian was dead, injured, scratched, bruised or even lightly ruffled. The cool, calm, drama-free manner in which the rescue of Captain Phillips was undertaken is good news for America and the world, for it demonstrates, finally, that this nation is once again in the hands of responsible people. Most important, perhaps, is the fact that a man held prisoner at gunpoint, who was beaten by his captors repeatedly according to reports, was rescued and sent home to his family.
But, of course, nothing is that simple. Even the word "piracy" itself is not entirely accurate, as Johann Hari explained in a January article for the UK Independent:
As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.
Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: "Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury - you name it." Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to "dispose" of cheaply. When I asked Mr. Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: "Nothing. There has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention."
At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia's seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish stocks by overexploitation - and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300 million worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are being stolen every year by illegal trawlers. The local fishermen are now starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka about 62 miles south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: "If nothing is done, there soon won't be much fish left in our coastal waters."
This is the context in which the "pirates" have emerged. Somalian fishermen took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least levy a "tax" on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia - and ordinary Somalis agree. The independent Somalian news site WardheerNews found 70 percent "strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence".
Evidence of this kind of illegal dumping taking place has been mounting for many years now, ever since the Somali government disintegrated after 1992. "Local fishermen in the coastline of Somalia," stated an AlterNet report on Tuesday, "have been complaining of illegal vessels coming to Somali waters and stealing all the fish. And since there was no government to report it to, and since the severity of the violence clumsily overshadowed every other problem, the fishermen went completely unheard. But it was around this same time that a more sinister, a more patronizing practice was being put in motion. A Swiss firm called Achair Parterns, and an Italian waste company called Progresso, made a deal with Ali Mahdi, that they could dump containers of waste material in Somali waters. These European companies were said to be paying Warlords about $3 a ton, whereas to properly dispose of waste in Europe costs about $1,000 a ton."
A BBC report from March 2005 states, "Tsunami waves could have spread illegally dumped nuclear waste and other toxic waste on Somalia's coast, a United Nations spokesman has said. Nick Nuttall of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) told the BBC that December's tsunami appeared to have broken barrels and scattered waste. Mr. Nuttall said a preliminary UN report had found that Somalis in the northern areas were falling sick as a result. Some firms have been dumping waste off Somalia's coast for years, the UN says. It says international companies have taken advantage of the fact that Somalia had no functioning government from the early 1990s until recently."
The sudden spike in media coverage on the issue of piracy was entirely due to the fact that Americans were involved. These pirates, many of them teenagers, have been active for quite some time now. The reasons why there are pirates attacking ships off the Horn of Africa in the first place, either as profiteers or to block illegal waste dumping, has everything to do with the ongoing economic, social and political upheaval currently ravaging that region; Somalia, in particular, is anarchy defined, and the utter absence of any government in Mogadishu explains why the Somali coastline is swarming with pirate enclaves. One hostage was rescued, but many others from many countries remain in captivity.
And the hijackings continue. Four more ships were attacked - the Lebanese cargo ship MV Sea Horse, the Greek bulk carrier MV Irene E.M. and two Egyptian fishing boats - in the aftermath of the Maersk-Alabama incident, and more than 60 crew members have been taken hostage by pirates who vowed revenge for the killing of their comrades.
The Barbary Wars of the 18th century make for a rattling good yarn or two, but the truth behind those stories is no less complex than the truth behind today's grand tale of thwarted piracy half a world away. It is a complicated, dangerous and developing situation that no banner headline, news network or made-for-TV movie appears capable of fully explaining. There was plenty to be happy about after last Monday's events, but plenty more to be worried about. Yarr.