Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Homeland Insecurity: Greenpeace arctic piracy

A fair chunk of my little slice of the 'net is peopled by fellow mariners, who for practical reasons ('The man sailing the boat does not like those who would rock it') probably share many of my views here, but rather than cater to a bunch who would instinctual agree with me, I write this mostly for the non-sailors out here. By virtue of a complete lack of experience in working on the water, they might understand, if not actually agree with the points made here.

 As you may have heard, recently, a bunch of Greenpeace activists, without authorization, boarded a Russian-crewed oil production platform (an 'oil rig') in arctic waters. This was quite alarming (more on that later), and the activists were surrounded, subdued and captured, and later transferred into the custody of Russian officials. They are currently languishing in prison awaiting formal indictment on charges of violating international maritime laws, and the potential for being charged with Piracy is being mulled over, but looks to be avoided in the name of proportionality. Still, they're in big damn trouble.


         I admit that I watched this unfold with a little guilty pleasure. I don't like environmental extremists, especially as someone who bothered to actually pursue a degree in the natural sciences and develop a professional-grade understanding of ecology. Activist-level interventionists are the Fundamentalist Muslims of science. They are as helpful to conservation measures as the morning-after pill is to abstinence programs. So, yeah, I enjoyed watching this, I'll admit.

This event has been a real twofer for me. In my other capacity as a professional mariner, I also watched this with some bemusement. This reaction comes not from a philosophical difference with Greenpeace, but from a more practical, gut-level response. Across the entire global maritime industry, we're trained, tested and bombarded on a daily basis with a heavy-handed institutional culture of fear and a mordant system of personal accountability in maritime safety. From Captain to Ordinary Seaman, we're expected to prioritize security over every other aspect on board except for being caught in an act of pollution... well, if you read an OPS manual or security plan, anyhow. Reality may differ, but maritime security is mostly a global chain of paper shields against insurance liability. Even so, we are forced to devote massive manpower towards it, in an industry where available manpower is something to be kept at a minimum for cost-containment purposes.

 I'm really skimming here because I want to make a big-ass salad before our next cargo, and that takes time, but I hope you'll see above that competing for time against balancing interests is an industry hazard that comes with working on the water. We're powered by paper but burn HFO to get from A-to-B, with a trail of dead trees in our wake. We don't yet have to fill out  a logbook entry to take a crap, but that's only because the IMO hasn't gotten around to regulating defecation out of existence.

 So, with a whole sub-industry devoted to keeping us safe from the dangers of fresh groceries, going ashore and seeing loved ones, and having time to focus on problematic things like navigation, maintenance and occupational safety, we're expected to keep certain standards to ensure safety against terrorism. We have daily, weekly and periodic procedures, logbooks and drills to fulfill. We are TESTED and assessed regularly on these things. We are given oral exams on our responses. We are forced to stop the conduction of trade to engage in port and regional exercises carried out with multiple military and civilian agencies... all devoted to maintaining operational readiness to deal with incidents that always start with unauthorized boarders coming aboard a vessel. We're hammered with institutional loathing and phobia on this level on a daily basis.

    And, as an aside, it has results. I've been freaked out by a friendly couple in a canoe. I stood there with a 25lb shackle in my hand, ready to drop it through their boat when they came over to say hi when we were at a dock. The dock saw them approach, and called the Coast Guard, who showed up in 3 go-fast boats about 20 minutes later, with .50cal bow-mounted machine guns manned and ready.
 Now, we can't protect ourselves from a muslim in a rowboat with 200lbs of C4 coming alongside to phone Allah, so the massive maritime security industry pretends that can never happen and focuses us on dealing with unauthorized boarders. The paranoia they preach goes through the industry like cholera through a village.

 So, to go back to the beginning, Greenpeace sends a couple of unemployable sacrificial goats up onto a Russian oil platform, causing a 200-man group freak-out aboard as a Pavlovian response...and yet Greenpeace claims to be 'surprised' at the response of port state control's security response.
 Well, I call bullshit on that, anyhow. Greenpeace sent a couple of goats up to the altar and no surprises ensued in their cushy offices. They're getting the attention they crave, claims aside. So bear in mind that this is a dog-and-pony show.
     Now, for the public, remember that this is Russia. Russia deals quickly and efficiently with brown-skinned boarders by binding their hands to their feet and testing them for buoyancy over the side. Supposedly, Russian ships don't have piracy problems in the Horn of Africa. So, with human rights standards like that, it's perhaps not surprising that Greenpeace's goats aren't having a good time in the Gulag awaiting trial. One of them is even really pissed she can't get vegan food there. Personally, I'm amazed they have food at all. Russian jails are not famed for being particularly expensive to operate.


   Anyhow, this is a good lesson for everyone here about intercultural experiences. It's not smart to assume that shared values exist across cultures. For Greenpeace, this is a win-win. For their volunteers, well, it's not like this will affect future job prospects. They might even learn a trade in the clink. Color me unsympathetic, because ignorance is toxic, and they should have known better, so now they get to put theory to test when it comes to their values.


Buck said...

'...maritime security is mostly a global chain of paper shields against insurance liability.'

This is true in all walks of life. The 2012 Reith Lecturer, Niall Ferguson said we are no longer a society operating under the rule of law, but under the rule of lawyers. http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/reith

I'm not a mariner, just a very occasional weekend sailor, but my family has a long history when it comes to the sea. Thanks for taking the time to write to the non-mariners out here.

Anonymous said...

They think their cause is right. So thusly they shouldn't be arrested. They haven't a clue of the over all picture. I.E those anti-whalers in the southern ocean. Oh yeah by the way where is " Capt." Paul Watson hiding now eh. If his cause was so right why didn't he stand/man up and face the music.

Paul, Dammit! said...

The maritime powers that be spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to convince sailors that the boogeyman is hovering 6 inches from the edge of the deck at all times. It's something of a testament to the human spirit that the Greenpeace activists weren't beaten half to death in a fight-or-flight reaction prior to being taken into custody.