Monday, April 13, 2009

Blood In The Water

I've been thinking quite a bit about pirates lately. Mainly, I've been hoping that we've not come to a time in which that statement will no longer be funny (AAaarrrr).

First things first. President Obama deserves a definite "attaboy" for this one. End to end, the President appears to me to have handled it spot-on right. He authorized force, but did not appear to try and micro manage on an operational level. Also, he did so on the D-L, and so refrained from complicating the operation by giving it too much focus from the Head of State/Government (drawing derision from some on the Right for focusing on domestic issues, and so appearing to denigrate the seriousness of the unfolding situation). He has also said many of the right things about how the US plans to treat piracy in the days to come.

It's this last part which is so very very crucial, though. As important as it was to treat the Maersk Alabama incident with due seriousness and strength, it is arguably at least as much so to stand strong against piracy at large. These attacks on the lawful conduct of trade on the high seas signify an efflorescence of anarchy which simply cannot be tolerated. It is an assault on the fabric of Civilization itself. I know: sounds a little histrionic. After all, what's a few fire ants to a wildebeast?

Part of why pirates are funny today is that they are so quaint and dated. There's a reason for that. The laws on what do do with pirates in the 18th and 19th centuries made for a lot of stretched necks over those peg legs. Faced with all those laws and guns and ropes, would-be pirates judged it prudent to look to other career options. So, quaint.

Now, what happens when a growing group of people discover that the ropes are gone, and the guns are muzzled under labyrinthine layers of legalisms? What happens when they start making more money on one run than their families had made in many combined generations before them? Suddenly, not so quaint.

People will tend to do what they can get away with, if it serves their ends as they define them. Part of what civilization does is to constrain the "what they can get away with" part. In return, it extends the range of defined ends which people may act to serve. On the whole, folks tend to do pretty well out of the bargain. But successful populations can tend to attract predators. At best, they develop defenses which keep the wolves at bay. At worst...well, pass the horseradish, Elaine.

Quoth Andrew McCarthy:
“Civilized” is a much-misunderstood word, thanks to the “rule of law” crowd that is making our planet an increasingly dangerous place. Civilization is not an evolution of mankind but the imposition of human good on human evil. It is not a historical inevitability. It is a battle that has to be fought every day, because evil doesn’t recede willingly before the wheels of progress.

There is nothing less civilized than rewarding evil and thus guaranteeing more of it. High-minded as it is commonly made to sound, it is not civilized to appease evil, to treat it with “dignity and respect,” to rationalize its root causes, to equivocate about whether evil really is evil, and, when all else fails, to ignore it — to purge the very mention of its name — in the vain hope that it will just go away. Evil doesn’t do nuance. It finds you, it tests you, and you either fight it or you’re part of the problem.
Like the Jihadis or the narco-terrorist, or the garden-variety street sociopaths, Pirates feast on the neglected flanks of the the civilizational beastie. They use its unwieldy bulk to their advantage through brutality and guile. And to the extent to which they perceive vulnerability, they concentrate their efforts with terrifying intensity. I am more than passing concerned that the legal niceties which can make Western Civilization so cushy may also be encouraging the re-emergence of these "atavistic barbarisms." When a group of dinghy-borne yahoos with AK-47s, RPGs, and handguns can command a $20m ransom (which they then split with complicit officials of a rubble-state like Somalia), and face no penalty greater than a jail cell which is better than their homes, and the real prospect of returning to those homes ere long, it's fair to say that their inhibitions will not win the day.

Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging, wrote Samuel Johnson. Perhaps it is time to revisit this concept. Operating in international waters, and so perceiving and exploiting great huge chasms in the carapace of law enforcement, these marauding parasites are proving all-too adroit in using the timidity and inertia of our civilized societies to their advantage. They are testing the will of those societies, and that will must not be found wanting. These pirates must be interdicted in the act, very harshly punished for the perpetration, and find no safe harbor for the planning and exploitation of their rapine escapades.

We may be able to buy time by attempting to circumvent the corridors which these pirates patrol (though the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean routes are crucial and devilishly difficult [impossible?] to by-pass). But ceding territory (and I'm not just talking about geography here) to opportunistic predators is little more than an invitation for them to take more ground. And they know it.

Whether it is a reluctance to use military force, an aversion to the idea of armed and trained merchant crews, or a porous babble of maritime statutes, we are in danger of setting some very perilous precedents here. If we do not push back against these eruptions of chaos, we simply enrich the medium in which they proliferate. President Obama has been speaking some of the words, and taking some of the actions which indicate that he is aware of the deep connection of this issue and the wider counterinsurgency which we currently wage. I will continue to watch very carefully the ways in which this is handled in the days and months to come.

Let's hope we have more than a bit of the captain in us.

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