Lindsay Beyerstein rightly thinks there’s “Enough dead teen pirate porn already.” While we’re all glad that Captain Phillips was safely recovered, Lindsay raises some important questions:
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.
This is true. While the technical skill of the SEAL snipers who hit three bobbing targets at high range is impressive, it’s worth remembering that those targets were 17-19 year old boys, with mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and girlfriends waiting for them at home. We shouldn’t celebrate their deaths while we celebrate the safe return of the crew of the Maersk Alabama.
Lindsay also raises a question I’ve been wondering about since the first reports:
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.
The standoff was dragging on and there was intense political pressure to resolve the situation. Maybe he just seized an opportunity to get three clean kills.
It’d be nice to know the answer to that, but I think Lindsay goes in an odd direction with that. She wants an independent review of the decision to shoot, made available in all of the relevant languages.
Imagine if some American criminals were holding an innocent Somali hostage in international waters. We’d demand answers if the Somalis shot them. It would be the responsible thing to do and we’d feel entitled to a full accounting of what happened to our people.
This is not entirely true. The first, though in some ways most trivial, reason is that pirates operate under no flag. When they took up the pirate’s life, these boys stepped outside of Somali law, and indeed outside of law altogether. The Jolly Roger is the pirate’s flag because they sail under the protection of no nation, and must accept the consequences of that. And the US Navy was established to fight pirates off the Barbary Coast. We’ve been at this for a long time, and the rules are pretty clear.
Now, no one thinks these teenagers fully grasp the full panoply of ways in which taking up piracy would change their lives, which is why I consider this objection fairly trivial. But these facts make me pretty comfortable that the shooting was just. Pirates can be expected to know that their line of work is likely to come to a short stop at the end of a noose.
But these kids were trying to find a way to surrender, and shooting them just because we can will discourage them from surrendering in the future, and discourage them from treating hostages well in the future. We need to give pirates every incentive to surrender peacefully, and to leave hostages unharmed. A clear explanation of what these guys did that was taken as threatening to the hostage has to be made very clear to other pirates, so that they can behave properly when SEALs are aiming at them.
And it needs to be clear that the shots were taken defensively so that other pirates don’t feel obliged to retaliate.
On an historical note, it’s worth remembering that among the earliest treaties signed by the fledgling United States were a series of treaties with nations along the northwestern rim of Africa which relied on piracy for their revenue. These treaties established a system of tribute, in exchange for which American ships could sail safely to Mediterranean ports. When that tribute was set too high, President Thomas Jefferson withdrew from the treaty and sent the untested Navy off to defend cargo ships and to wage war against the pirates. The war ended with a truce, and payment of ransom for the return of several captured sailors. Piracy off the Barbary coast was finally stopped after a second war and the intervention of European powers.
The Treaty of 1796 declared that:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
In his recent tour of Europe, Barack Obama addressed the Turkish Parliament, and similarly stated:
I know there have been difficulties these last few years. I know that the trust that binds the United States and Turkey has been strained, and I know that strain is shared in many places where the Muslim faith is practiced. So let me say this as clearly as I can: The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam.
Today, like he was two hundred years ago, a president was assuring the Muslim world that we were at peace with them, while trying to find a peaceful resolution to piracy off the African coast.