The Questionable Authority

Over at Majikthise, Lindsay Beyerstein has a post up that takes a look at the Navy’s handling of the attempted piracy/hostage standoff involving the captain of the Maersk Alabama. She makes some good points at the beginning and end of the article, but I think she misses to point a bit in the middle.

At the start of the article, she writes:

I’m relieved that the Navy SEALs rescued the American hostage from Somali pirates. Their skill and professionalism was indeed impressive.

But really… Two days after the rescue, the banner headline on the front page of the Washington Post should not read “3 Rounds, 3 Dead Bodies.” And if that’s the front page headline, surely they don’t need a second story about pirate-shooting in the same edition.

The American public is relishing the deaths of the pirates to a degree that’s downright unseemly.

I’m certainly not going to argue with that. I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the news yesterday, but even the little bit that I caught – the cheesy CG SEAL snipers that MSNBC went with repeatedly on countdown – was not exactly what I’d call exemplary journalism. There has absolutely been far more jingoism going on than is healthy.

I’m also totally onboard with her last paragraph – with the exception of two words:

It’s creepy to see so many Americans are exulting over the fact that the United States military managed to shoot three teenagers, albeit three very dangerous teenagers who may have been about to kill an innocent hostage. Even if authorities did the right thing, it was a sad, sordid necessity, not a glorious adventure.

It’s the “even if” that I’m having some problems with – and that’s also why I don’t think she was quite on the mark in the rest of the post:

The on-scene Navy commander aboard the USS Bainbridge reportedly gave the order to fire because the hostage’s life was suddenly in danger. If that’s true, then of course the SEALs did the right thing.

Despite the blanket coverage of the SEALs who fired the shots, very little has been reported about the evidence that moved the commander to order the shooting. So far, nobody has explained why the commander decided that the hostage was in jeopardy at that particular moment.

Actually, one of the WaPo articles Lindsay cited in that post did provide an explanation of why the scene commander felt that the captain’s life was in immediate danger:

Navy SEAL snipers, monitoring the lifeboat through rifle scopes, watched as two pirates raised their heads out of a lifeboat hatch. Inside the lifeboat, the third pirate moved toward the captain, pointing his AK-47 at his back.

Thinking Phillips was about to be killed, the on-scene commander gave the snipers the order to fire.

Lindsay thinks that a full and impartial investigation is called for, and that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea. But there’s really only one question that matters: at the time that they were killed, were the would-be pirates still holding both weapons and a hostage? If the answer to that question is yes, I’m honestly not sure what more you need to know to figure out if the use of deadly force was a legitimate decision.

Don’t believe me? Let’s ignore everything that took place in the last couple of hours before the highly trained SEAL snipers killed the heavily armed adolescents. The situation at that point was pretty well known. The dumbass adolescents in question had tried to hijack a freighter. Their attempt went very, very poorly. So poorly, in fact, that five days later one of the four of them had surrendered to get medical attention, and the other three were still well-armed, but tired, probably frightened, and stuck on a lifeboat with their one hostage, who had tried to escape once already, and being towed far from shore by a US Navy warship. They’d also already reneged on an agreement to let him go once they were clear of the freighter, and they’d taken a number of (fortunately poorly-aimed) shots at him when he tried to escape.

How much more imminent danger are you looking for?

Negotiations had already broken down a couple of times. They might succeed, but they might not – particularly if the reports that the kid-pirates were going into withdrawal were at all accurate. Given the situation – small lifeboat, untrained and scared hijackers – I’ll bet you dollars against donuts that a commando-type rescue attempt was absolutely the last thing in the world that the SEAL team leader wanted to try. If the opportunity to simultaneously shoot all three hijackers presented itself at any time before they agreed to surrender, that’s what was going to happen.

That’s not because there might have been pressure from above to end the problem, and it’s not because the commander could earn brownie points by sparing his superiors the necessity of deciding whether or not to authorize a full-on commando raid. The commander on the scene, under those circumstances, is going to order the snipers to kill because that’s what is going to create the least additional risk for the hostage and for his team.

There is very, very little about this whole disaster that can be described as good. I guess it’s good that we can still protect American merchant sailors from pirates and hijackers even far from our own shores. That’s about all I can think of. The deaths of the three Somali kids are not good, and they’re certainly not anything to brag about. The geographical disaster area that is Somalia isn’t good, and I definitely don’t want to even think about our own role in that particular area.

The SEALs did what they had to do to protect the hostage. I think that’s true for any situation that involves all – or even most – of those three hijackers still being armed and in the lifeboat with him, regardless of where the weapons were pointing at that exact moment. It’s not a national victory of some sort for us, and it’s not a sign that we can end the piracy problems in that area by shooting until there’s nobody left to answer questions. It’s just a sad end to a sad incident.

Comments

  1. #1 PalMD
    April 14, 2009

    The captain’s life was in imminent danger the second he got onto the lifeboat with 4 armed adolescents. These desperate pirates were in a dangerous, unstable situation, and it is not at all predictable. The only strong probability is that the captain may have been further injured than he already was.

  2. #2 Julie Stahlhut
    April 14, 2009

    [Even if] authorities did the right thing, it was a sad, sordid necessity, not a glorious adventure.

    I have no doubt that the SEALs had no choice but to shoot the pirates.

    I also think that with or without the “even if”, this is exactly how we should feel whenever the military or the police have to kill someone.

  3. #3 Orac
    April 14, 2009

    I have very little doubt that killing the pirates was the right thing to do to save the kidnapped captain. There is no need to apologize for or second-guess this legitimate use of force, As much as I like her otherwise, in this case I find all Majikthise’s handwringing damned near as unseemly as the jingoism that so disturbs her.

    The Navy SEALS did exactly what they were trained to do and did it very, very well indeed–spectacularly well. I remain in awe. In fact, I’d go one further. Even if the captain’s life weren’t in imminent danger, I would have had no problem if, given the opportunity to do so with low risk to the captain, the SEALS had taken these pirates out. Rescuing the hostage unharmed trumps the lives of the criminals.

  4. #4 tincture
    April 14, 2009

    Orac :
    I would have had no problem if, given the opportunity to do so with low risk to the captain, the SEALS had taken these pirates out. Rescuing the hostage unharmed trumps the lives of the criminals.

    Does that apply in all situations or just ones where the hostage takers are not Americans? It reminds me of a similiar to a shitty post I read on deathby1000papercuts.com, cheerleading the way China handles hostage situations compared to the way the US does.

    http://deathby1000papercuts.com/2008/03/hostage-negotiations-chinese-style/

    Ironically they got the story wrong and have a position similar to what I understand yours to be while in reality the situation was not that at all.

  5. #5 Warren Dew
    April 15, 2009

    Honestly, if it were Americans holding a hostage at gunpoint in, say, an American high school, no one would have any problem with a police SWAT team gunning them down, even if the danger to the hostages was not imminent. Why should we be more considerate of Somalian pirates than of American citizens?

  6. #6 Troublesome Frog
    April 15, 2009

    I would have been looking for the first opportunity to get the hostage out alive. If that means they surrender, great. If a clean shot becomes available before that, that’s the right answer.

    Every minute the hostage spends in a boat with armed pirates is an additional risk to the hostage. I can’t fathom putting an innocent hostage in additional danger for the benefit of the pirates. They’re responsible for their own safety.

  7. #7 Paul Murray
    April 15, 2009

    Three shots, three kills? From a ship onto a lifeboat? On the open sea? Did anyone else, on hearing this, simply not belive it?

  8. #8 Stuart
    April 15, 2009

    I though that at first, but then realised that the lifebopat was only 25 yards away so now find it more believable.

  9. #9 Heather
    April 15, 2009

    Yes, those poor, frightened pirates, with their automatic weapons and their rocket propelled granades.

    What will be interesting is that this situation allowed Obama to wait five days to make a move. Now we have more pirates who opened fire on a US ship with automatic weapons and their rocket propelled granades.

    What does Obama do when he does not have the luxury of pirates floating about the ocean for five days?

  10. #10 honest posting
    April 15, 2009

    Nice post Heather– lets see how we can twist any news story available to bash Obama. Very constructive.

  11. #11 Jason Dick
    April 16, 2009

    There are really only two reasonable responses to piracy, though: death or capture. The problem with Somalia is that the norm has been neither. The norm has been the best solution to the immediate problem: people have been paying the pirates’ ransom demands. That, however, is not a reasonable alternative. Paying ransoms makes the practice of being a pirate profitable. Added to the political instability of Somalia that gives them a safe haven, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

    So yes, the deaths of these pirates is exactly what was needed. That or their capture and imprisonment. Given the inability of Somalia to deal with this problem, we really need to step up international efforts in the region to combat piracy in the region. We can no longer allow pirates to profit from their endeavors, and this killing, it seems to me, is a step towards a more reasonable response to piracy.

    P.S. One may think it odd or contradictory that I use “reasonable” to talk about killing and capture, but really, what other option can possibly reduce piracy?

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