Thursday, April 16, 2009

Death to pirates

I was talking to a young girl who is a senior in college about the pirates killed in the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips and said I was glad it ended that way. She's a nice girl who is graduating college and, not surprisingly, thinks we can save everybody, even pirates. She asked me if I wasn't being too harsh. I said "no" and meant it.

Until the pirates believe their chances of getting killed are substantially higher than their getting a ransom, this out of control industry will keep booming. This isn't a domestic kidnapping, or a one of a kind criminal act by an out of control person. This kind of piracy is about as lawless as you can get, and that includes international law, which is about as vague as you can get and still call it law. Nor is this a case of colonization where the indigent people are fighting back. These are pirates motoring hundreds of miles from their home, kidnapping sailors and tourists at the point of powerful weapons, and holding them for ransom in Somalia, many in the same area.

Like with terrorists, we can't be soft with these people. Yes, if I was the kidnapped person or it was someone I was close to I would want a ransom to be paid. But that would be because I was emotional and irrational about it, as I should be in that situation.

The ransoms paid over the last year or so to the Somalia pirates have been the catalyst and the seed money for their industry. It has been reported as over $150,000,000 in ransoms for 2008. Although a number of nations have banded together to take on the pirates, it has not been very effective. A true international blockade is necessary. The pirates cannot be subject to years of criminal defense. Justice has to be swifter than normal, particularly when a hostage is killed, even in a rescue attempt and even by the rescuer.

Don't get worried. I won't suggest lynching them at sea or torturing them, though, they probably deserve it. I do believe they should be tried as quickly as possible, have quick appeals and the punishment carried out. If we hesitate, we can look forward to keeping it going for way too long, as with the Iraq War and The War on Terror.

Unfortunately, many of the countries who are partaking in this group defense are allergic to the death penalty. I am too, usually. Although I believe some people deserve to die, I just don't believe juries are very capable of rendering a very impartial decision in murder cases and too many innocent people get convicted. However, this is the type of thing that must be done regardless. I would limit the death penalty to those who are caught in the act and where a hostage dies or is "seriously injured" in the mind of the jury, or other factors that make it particularly heinous.

Captain Phillips was rescued by men from the USS Bainbridge, a ship named after William Bainbridge, an American navy man of the late 18th and early 10th century. He was the captain of the Philadelphia, which was in the Tripoli harbor in 1803 during the First Barbary War. We fought that war in order to put an end to the pirate tactics of several Ottoman Empire satellites on the North African Coast. The Philadelphia got stuck on a shoal in the harbor and Bainbridge felt the smartest thing to do was to surrender and spare his men. They were captured and the men enslaved and several died. The officers were allowed the freedom of the city but, of course, were not free to leave.

In order to prevent the Pasha from using the ship (actually, they didn't have the expertise and were going to sell it) Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr., diguised himself and his men on a captured ship and then got permission to tie itself along the stranded vessel. Just as their disguise was uncovered, they dashed unboard (actually, Decatur tripped and thus, was not first aboard). They set the ship on fire. Just as Decatur's father was the Philadelphia's first captain, he was the last to leave the deck. Horatio Nelson called it "the most bold and daring act of the age.” The Pope said it was the most important blow struck for Christaindom in centuries. Decatur became a national hero and even Francis Scott Key wrote a song for him which years later became the basis of the Star Spangled Banner.

But, the Pope may have exaggerated. The mission neither freed the hostages (who were beaten because of it) nor ended the war. Finally, William Eaton, a remarkable former soldier, spy and diplomat, who spoke many of the regional languages, got permission from Jefferson to do what he could to rescue the hostages. He went back to the Mediterranean for the purpose of either throwing such a scare into the Pasha he would give up, or, if necessary attack and destroy him. He organized an international army, mostly Arabs and Berbers, but also European adventurers and a few American military men. he dubbed himself the general, crossed with his army hundreds of desert miles through adventures that are deserving of books and movies, captured Derna with the help of a navy bombardment, setting up the Pasha’s frightened and useless brother, Hamet, as de facto ruler. He held the city against counter-attack, acted as his ruler and intended, if the Pasha did not surrender to march on Tripoli itself and crown Hamet King. The Pasha was frightened at what occurred and probably would have capitulated had not we shot ourselves in the foot by - and here's the moral - PAID A RANSOM.

Without Eaton’s knowledge, Jefferson's peace officer named Tobias Lear (from whom we know Washington's last words and who was a friend of Jeffersona and Madison) agreed to that America would pay $60,000 for the release of the prisoners. America did not want to pay tribute anymore, which was humiliating, but somehow thought that paying ransom was better. With the hostages freed and a treaty signed it might have appeared that Lear acted wisely. But Eaton knew better. As one of Eaton’s very few biographers, Samuel Edwards, records in Barbary General, Eaton wrote the following in final report:

“What have we gained by the war? What benefit has accrued to the United States by the suffering of the Philadelphia’s officers and men, six of whom died in captivity? What benefit has accrued to the United States by the death of two members of the Marine Corps who accompanied the Bey Hamet on his march to Derna? These dead, and the noble Europeans and Africans who joined hands with us in a noble enterprise – and who lost their lives in that effort – cry out from their shallow graves for justice.”

Like Decatur, Eaton became a national hero. He probably already deserved it if the public had the public been aware of the things he had accomplished. However, he pressed his case that a terrible mistake had been made and that we would find we needed to fight there again. He was completely right. Decatur himself went back after the War of 1812 ended in 1815. This time he went with overwhelming force and gave the Bey of Algiers a few hours to sign a treaty (with very little negotiating allowed), or pay the penalty. The Bey caved as sood did the rulers of Tunis and Tripoli, also capitulated. They even paid the Americans for their troubles and released both American and European prisoners. Still, it is probably that a little bombardment would have been a good idea. The next year an Anglo-Dutch flotilla did just this, bombarding Algiers until they reconfirmed the treaties and gave up their pirating.

Only force works with some people, and pirates are among them. As Eaton and Decatur knew, pirates are rarely dissuaded from their tasks without either scaring them to death or actually doing the job. This may again be something that America has to do almost alone. I hope we figure this out (and for goodness sakes, Obama and Clinton, please don't blame us for it).

If you are interested in more on Eaton and Decatur, two now largely forgotten heroes, check out my October 2nd, 2008 and December 10th, 2008 posts.


  1. This is a rarity: I completely agree. Though you repeat yourself about Eaton and Decatur, they are fun enough to be worth talking about twice. Good job, Frodo.

  2. I wish I knew how to symbolically represent saying through gritted teeth - "I talked about Bainbridge and Eaton and Decatur because they were applicable."

    But, for you, that was a particularly nice comment, so thanks.

  3. Dear Obvious-Man,
    Of course they are applicable,why the f**k else would you mention them? Sheesh.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .