From the comfort of my armchair, I've never been one to run from (the discussion of) imminent danger. I've been an advocate of the employment of aggressive policies in response to the issue of piracy, ever since the number of attacks reached the threshold sufficient to warrant international attention.
Here in the US, far from the action but still the terminal end of so much maritime commerce, we've had cause to gloat- like a well-played round of the game 'Mortal Kombat,' our one skirmish with modern piracy ended with the tinny computer voice cheering 'flawless victory,' and the blood and brains of some nameless pirates to be scraped off some American shoes.
I doubt that this week's tragedy will be a game-changer, but all the same, I have been particularly troubled by the death of our four sailboaters who didn't survive the rescue attempt aboard their boat.
Having taken a little time to look around, I've seen a lot of sound bites and questionable information being passed regarding these events. There's word of friendly fire being again responsible for their death (something that is accepted but not talked about so much). The US navy says that they attacked based on small-arms fire having been directed at their shadowing vessel... others say the US Navy attacked at the sound of gunfire aboard the sailboat. It's doubtful we'll know exactly how it all happened, and maybe it's not germane, as the one thing that absolutely is not happening is anyone claiming that mistakes were made, and this, to me, is the most troubling issue.
Again, from the comfort of my chair, I've been echoing the voices around me who say "Kill 'em all and let God sort them out' and 'Give no quarter, for none will be given.' I've even heard an otherwise reasonable voice say "as far as I'm concerned, the hostages are already dead once they're taken.'
Again, I'm troubled, but not surprised. These are mariners, the hostages, and most shamefully, almost none of them are American, though many of them do, ultimately, work for American interests one way or the other. The knowledge base of the American public on the issue is simply the knowledge that our one exposure to this issue ended in perfect action-movie fashion. There were snipers and navy SEAL's involved. No one ever talked much about the savage and increasingly more savage beatings and torture of sailors that seems to be becoming a negotiation tool, so, thus, the American public is largely unaware or uninterested in what some largely foreign, largely non-American people are experiencing an ocean away.
What is obvious to me, and has been for some time, is that we're headed down the wrong path in our increasingly violent localized responses to pirate attacks. I've surprised myself, as a hawkishly-minded individual, in coming to this conclusion, but above all, I'm a pragmatist-I see rules of engagement in dealing with piracy that vary widely from those employed in other situations. And seriously, I do not like what I see.
First off, anti-piracy measures as they exist today are mostly about security theatre: providing a visual impression of security without actually providing security. This is blatantly obvious in the massive failure of international naval patrols to reduce the number of attempted attacks. There is no method of prosecuting pirates- no laws exist in most places to actually handle such things, and no one is actually suggesting that laws be enacted under the half-dozen maritime treaties that contain sufficient mandate to be used as a starting point in forming a legal framework to prosecute pirates. This leaves just three responses to piracy; find loopholes to prosecute pirates somehow, some way, do not prosecute, and, finally, summary judgment and execution.
Of these three, the last option troubles me. The Russian navy has made a badly- kept secret policy of ensuring that pirates don't survive any attempt to surrender. In business terms, this dis-incentivizes pirates from surrendering peacefully. Superficially, I'm sure the idea was meant to provide incentive to leave Russian interests alone, but the rule of unintended consequences has to be considered here, for it's certainly being observed in action- negotiations have evolved such that the blood of sailors is being spilled in the normal course of action.
I'm ashamed to say that I've kept my opinion to myself on this issue for the most part- I'm not the first sailor to say that it's time to Knock This Shit Off. Some things I've been considering:
1). There's a systemic distaste for creating the necessary laws and authority to combat piracy- issues of sovereignty and other concerns are absolutely involved, as is the cost of action vs. the cost of inaction. Anti piracy-related business is profitable by greater than an order of magnitude when compared to the actual cost of piracy.
2). Ransom. There is no law that touches on this subject, and there is a massive variance in the types of people involved- ergo, it is unlikely that there will ever be anything approaching a quorum of sufficient rigor to control the payment (or not) of ransoms. Personally, I believe that they should never be paid. When piracy was limited to stealing the food and the contents of the captain's safe, this was the case.
3). Downstream effects. Philosophical discussions of morality aside, escalation of violence has had no positive results whatsoever- there are more pirate attacks, and more sailors are being injured, tortured and killed in response. Hostages are not surviving as frequently as they did even last year.
4) Containment. Piracy is spreading, as is the reach of pirates. Little or no effort is seemingly being made to combat piracy uprange. Rather, response is where anti-piracy measures are being made, rather than in prevention. This is both counterintuitive and counterproductive. You don't protect kids from a vicious dog by sending them to school in a padded suit. You chain the dog. We don't need to invade Somalia to do this. We need to prosecute the pirates' international partners and employees. It's an open secret that Somali pirates have to have contacts in Europe to get shipping schedules and routing plans, yet there is no mention of hunting down these networks. All we get is a show of force that rarely works out well for those being victimized.