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.

Comments

  1. #1 Jon
    April 15, 2009

    “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.”

    What did they do to threaten the hostage? I’m pretty sure the news reports said that they aimed their guns at his head. By US law, that’s assault, and it put the hostage in imminent danger. I think the SEALS had every right to take those shots. Sure, they might have been teenagers with families at home, but they should have thought of that before they decided to ATTACK A US FLAGGED SHIP. They had to have known that it could result in their death.

    “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.”

    If they were trying to find a way to surrender, there’s a real easy way to do that: Put down your gun and wave a white flag, then put your hands behind your head. I’d say over 5 days they had plenty of chances to do that.

    Making excuses for their actions will not decrease piracy. Hopefully this incident will cause others to think twice about attacking any ship, and also bring attention to the root cause of this piracy. The immense poverty and food shortages are reported as being the most common reason for piracy in Somalia, which is why it’s ironic that they attacked a ship carrying relief supplies. The way to end this isn’t to encourage more piracy by negotiating ransom, it’s to end their need for it.

  2. #2 The Ridger
    April 15, 2009

    The fetishization of the sniper – like that of the Warfighter in general – is terrible. Acknowledging that killing may be, and was, necessary yields to glorification of killing. Check out Stephen Hunter’s swoony piece in – for god’s sake – the Style section:

    … we are in the golden age of the sniper. He has become a kind of chivalric hero. He is the state, speaking in thunder, restoring order to the moral universe. Or he is civilization, informing the barbarians of the fecklessness of their plight. He is the line in the sand, the point of the spear, the man with the rifle, one of the few, the proud. He is also the intellectual of combat, in some ways, bringing a cool logic to what is normally hot, messy and exhausting.

  3. #3 RBH
    April 15, 2009

    A couple of comments. You wrote

    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.

    In fact, as I understand it, the range was on the order of 100 feet or so, which is a very close shot, though complicated by the boat’s and ship’s relative motions. And when I was 19 I was on a missile launch crew in the military. Had my original plan gone through, I’d have been a Marine rifleman in the run-up to our build up of troops in Viet Nam. “Boys” is a strange term for AK-47 carrying people the same age I was in the military. A fair number of the sailors aboard the Bainbridge are the same age as those “boys.”

    From the quoted story

    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.

    I’ve seen it reported in several places that the ‘pirates’ were becoming agitated, and that the captain and one pirate were seen aboard the lifeboat with the pirate pointing an AK-47 at the captain. Since all three SEALs had clear shots, that precipitated the order to fire.

    Again from the story:

    Imagine if some American criminals were holding an innocent Somali hostage in international waters. We’d demand answers if the Somalis shot them.

    I wouldn’t demand any answers. With you, I’d figure the American criminals asked for trouble, and got more than they expected but nothing they couldn’t have anticipated had they thought more than 3 seconds about it.

    You then wrote

    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.

    No, negotiations reportedly had broken down, the pirates were becoming agitated, and one was pointing a weapon at the hostage. That’s not “trying to find a way to surrender.” As noted in another comment, it ain’t hard to surrender. They were trying to trade their hostage for a couple of million bucks without surrendering.

    You then wrote

    And it needs to be clear that the shots were taken defensively so that other pirates don’t feel obliged to retaliate.

    Man, Josh, you live in a rich delusional world. If we’re nice to pirates, and assure them we’ll fire only in self defense, then they’ll be nice to us and only hijack Russian or Chinese or French ships. Baloney. There really are times when one has to slap a bully down and then kick him in the nuts. And one of those times is when he is actively and repeatedly hijacking ships in the Gulf of Aden and holding the ships and crews for ransom. Josh, that’s called “kidnapping.” Paying ransom reinforces that behavior. A fundamental principle of behavior management is “Water the behavior you want to grow.”

    And the connection you imply between dealing with the piracy and whether we’re at war with the Muslims is a red herring — a non sequitur. It makes no difference at all whether the pirates are Muslim, Hindu, Christian, or Zoroastrian.

  4. #4 RBH
    April 15, 2009

    Man, talk about some screwed up formatting. Sorry about that.

  5. #5 Christine
    April 16, 2009

    17 to 19 years old. Who cares how old they were? Honorable young American boys of 17 to 19 have died in all of our wars, fighting to make others free. These ‘kids’ were holding a man at gunpoint, asking 6 million dollars for him. They could have quit and gone home, but they wouldn’t because they wanted the money and thought they could fight the US navy. They were the ones with the AK47. Warn them? Tell them what will make our snipers shoot? Surely that is obvious. The fact that these greedy young men were demented is on their own heads.

  6. #6 The Ridger
    April 16, 2009

    Of course, the fact that we’re driving them to piracy by overfishing their waters and making it hard for them to find other work is not worth considering. That these boys are “criminals” and not “freedom fighters” or “patriots” is a given, though that depends on where you stand…

  7. #7 Josh Rosenau
    April 16, 2009

    I mention their age because a 17-19 year old is a lot less capable of getting himself out of stupid situations than an adult. Someone of my age who gets himself into trouble has to face the results head-on, because we’ve had a chance to learn about the world. A teenager hasn’t. Those boys were looking for a way out of a very bad situation, and didn’t know how to do it. Maybe there was no way. But I’m reminded of this passage from the West Wing (season 1). Mrs. Landingham is talking about her sons, killed in Vietnam on Christmas Eve, 1970:

    You know, they were so young, Charlie, they were your age. It’s hard when that happens so far away, you know, because, with the noises and the shooting, they had to be so scared. It’s hard not to think that right then they needed their mother.

    Yes, the boys who fought and died in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Kuwait, Panama, Grenada, Vietnam, Korea, Bastogne, etc. are also teenagers. And their deaths are all tragedies, to be avoided if at all possible.

    And yes, at least one of the pirates pointed a gun at Captain Phillips. But I imagine the gun was aimed in his direction several times over the course of that standoff. What made this instance different from all the others?

    RBH: I agree that we should respond forcefully to the pirates. I don’t know how I could have been clearer about that than writing: “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 aren’t the ones who need to be deterred. The world is too full of underemployed kids with guns and no prospects. You deter the people who train them and who give them boats, ammunition, and shelter. Raining down punishment on these kids may make us feel better, but it won’t solve the problem. Nor will paying ransom, which is why I never advocated that, nor would I.

    As for the digression into the history of American dealings with pirates, and the Treaty of 1796, I was not making any grand claims about the religious character of the conflict, only tracing out the intriguing parallels.

  8. #8 SLC
    April 16, 2009

    I can’t believe I’m reading this baloney. Mr. Rosenau and Ms. Beyerstein want an investigation to determine whether the captain of the navy ship acted in a responsible manner in ordering his minions to take out the pirates. I suggest instead that he and his snipers be given medals. Those pirates are nothing but terrorists and deserve no quarter whatever. Piracy on the high seas is an act of war and the perpetrators deserve nothing less then termination with extreme prejudice.

  9. #9 RBH
    April 16, 2009

    A little more on modern piracy from a Britannica blog:

    According to the International Maritime Bureau, the organization that investigates maritime fraud and piracy, there were 325 reported attacks on shipping by pirates worldwide in 2004. These latest statistics, the IMB said, reflected only reported incidents directed at commercial shipping and represented a fraction of the actual number. Most acts of piracy went unreported because shipowners did not want to tie up a vessel, costing tens of thousands of dollars a day to operate, for lengthy investigations. The human cost was also high—399 crew members and passengers were killed, were injured, were held hostage, or remained missing at the end of 2004. These statistics did not include, however, those innocent passengers, tourists, commercial fishermen, or yachtsmen whose mysterious disappearances were unofficially attributed to acts of piracy or maritime terrorism.

    I fully concede that this is not a problem that can be handled by purely military/force means, but that crime can’t be completely handled by cops doesn’t mean we should give up on law enforcement and, when the circumstances are appropriate, on the use of deadly force.

    And “we” aren’t over-fishing their waters; as far as I can tell from a web search it’s mainly the Japanese, Spanish, and more generally EU fishing fleets that are putting pressure on Somali waters. I don’t at all argue that’s not a contributor to the rise of piracy in those waters, but once again, the pirates are not showing the kinds of discrimination among flagged vessels that would allow that to be an even weak excuse.

  10. #10 Josh Rosenau
    April 16, 2009

    SLC: I see no reason to abuse the term “terrorists” like that. They are pirates, not terrorists. Terrorists act to instill political terror. That’s not what happened here. Words mean things.

    And as I thought I’d made clear, I’m not so much after an investigation as I am hoping for a clearer accounting of what led to the kill order. I don’t doubt that there was good reason to give that order, and I think there are a lot of good reasons to make that information public, and a lot of reasons why it would be bad to keep it private.

    I certainly do not have any objection to the pirates having been killed, and I don’t see where Lindsay objects to that either. We both object to the celebration of the killings; while obviously celebrating Captain Phillips’ safe return, we would rather that celebration weren’t wrapped up in the macabre celebration of lethal marksmanship. We both have questions – legitimate, fair questions – about what led to the order to open fire.

  11. #11 Kevin Parcell
    April 18, 2009

    Thank you Josh and Lindsay for having the decency to ask these questions. Perhaps I can help you find the answers, but I’m afraid you won’t like what I say.

    You see, the fact is that one of the three pirates was aboard the Bainbridge in negotiation when his comrades were killed. That means all involved were under a white flag of truce at the time of the killings. Some of the reporting has mistakenly stated that this third pirate went aboard the warship to seek medical care, but of course that is absurd on the face of it since he wasn’t under arrest, and the official report acknowledges that he was aboard negotiating.

    The lifeboats are enclosed and this truce gave the two pirates and their captive a chance to leave the enclosure for some air and sun. In other words, because of the truce they exposed themselves. The only protection that the pirates had – other than the integrity of the men on the Bainbridge in honoring the truce – was their captive. If they killed him then their lives were certainly forfeit. Thus, it stands against reason to assert that the captives’ life was suddenly at risk at this moment when the pirates were exposed under the protection of a white flag.

    So what is the truth? The reports we are receiving from our military, and our media, including our public media, ignore these obvious facts by avoiding asking the sorts of questions you have asked. So perhaps the most relevant question now is, “How many innocents will die as the pirates’ friends take their promised revenge, and will journalists be targeted?

    A more personal question might be, “Should we trust any report from the msm?” I don’t. Not one. Perhaps next year, one of those rare groups that monitors media accountability will publish a criticism of their colleagues in regards to this, but I doubt the story will gain legs. I’ve sent a round of emails to various NPR programs asking them to address these issues. One of those was to the producer of the Diane Rehm Show because a plug airing on our local station announced that a program addressing the affair would air on Monday morning but that show never happened. I received a response from the shows top producer, Sandra Pinkard. She asked me to identify the station that had announced the show that was cancelled and stated, “We will go back to the Somalia story – in the Friday News Round-Up if not before.” That promised coverage never happened either, and I do not believe that anything we do will compel any msm journalist to do the right thing, but if there is strength in numbers then here I join with you in asking for the truth

    I’ll check back here to read responses to this post.

  12. #12 DJ
    April 18, 2009

    Of course, the fact that we’re driving them to piracy by overfishing their waters and making it hard for them to find other work is not worth considering. That these boys are “criminals” and not “freedom fighters” or “patriots” is a given, though that depends on where you stand…

    You could take the apologist position for any number of international incidents, military actions or wars. It doesn’t seem to be a very useful way to look at things. IMO

    As a Veteran of the US Navy having served on an Aegis class destroyer myself, I stand with our troops. They did what was necessary, it’s unfortunate and not something to speak of triumphantly, but I do commend them for doing the work and saving an American life. Leave the politics to politicians I say.

    As for Lindsay’s desire for transparency in military decisionmaking… That is just not going to happen. If you want to know specifics you’ll have to be the right rank in the right place.

  13. #13 agit
    April 19, 2009

    I agree with the skeptics here. Something stinks about this affair. One pirate is aboard the Bainbridge. Three in the lifeboat with the hostage. Under what circumstances would all three hostages expose themselves to the stern of the Bainbridge. They wouldn’t. No way. Unless they thought the were temporarily safe. Like under a white flag. How did the fourth pirate get to the Destroyer? Swim? Doubt it. I assume he was picked up by a small boat from the ship. If not, how?
    These questions matter. Perhaps American citizens don’t care. But many Somali pirates care. I can imagine many people around that part of the world think that the pirates got tricked and murdered. Not good for the future as far as pirate incidents go.
    And no they are not terrorists. Look at them. They are skeletons dressed in rags. They are desperate people doing desperate, dangerous things to survive in a completely devastated part of the world. If they were terrorists the body count would be much higher than it is. I have little doubt that there are terrorists somewhere in the process. Financing operations, buying guns and boats arranging ransom transactions. Keeping most of the ransoms for themselves and their causes. Throwing a few doubloons to the pirates.
    I think we did a perfidious and treacherous thing, blowing away those three pirates. Of course, I don’t know. I have know idea and I know I never will know. But I can’t celebrate those awesome sharpshooters because I can’t help thinking they killed three unsuspecting, trusting men.
    This may soon get much, much uglier.

  14. #14 DJ
    April 19, 2009

    Hmmm. I must say I find the last comment disturbing on so many levels. Mostly what I got was Military=questionable or bad, Pirates= misunderstood victims…. Well I’m sorry but that just isn’t supported by the evidence.

    The military did the right thing and since this occurence the pirate activity has been negatively impacted according to reports. People are not being so readily victimized by these men.

    I understand these men are a product of their environment and deserve some measure of pity. Sex offenders and pedophiles are often products of their environment as well, but I have no problem with them facing the consequences of their actions. No way I’m gonna apologize for these murdering pirates getting taken out.

    Guess that’s all I have to say about that.

    Other then delurking here on this thread, much love for this blog.

  15. #15 forever.net@mac.com
    April 19, 2009

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103224937

    In this report linked above from NPR journalist Brian Naylor we hear that the one of the pirates was on board the Bainbridge negotiating while the lifeboat was only about 100 feet from the warship. So it seems clear that they were all under a white flag, the three pirates came out of the enclosed lifeboat believing they were safe, and that the sniper shots were at close range. The reason the pirates held the hostage was that he was the only thing keeping them alive so it seems clear the hostage would not have suddenly been in danger during the truce.

    According to international treaties, any party violating the protection of a truce is guilty of perfidy and treachery and forfeits that inviolability in the future. In a sense this is Obama’s Bay of Pigs, and we might yet see him own his responsibility as commander in chief and so avert more bloodshed by at least initiating the inquiry that’s called for to fairly address these questions, but i doubt that will happen.

  16. #16 Josh Rosenau
    April 19, 2009

    The idea that the pirate on the Bainbridge was negotiating strikes me as dubious at best. It seems clear that he had surrendered himself for medical care. It isn’t clear that the Bainbridge thought it was under a truce, it isn’t clear that the pirates thought they were under a truce, and if Phillips really was being menaced, then the truce had clearly ended.

  17. #17 Involved1
    April 20, 2009

    I found this entire discussion both fascinating and thought provoking. In fact, my perception and views shifted to one side or the other several times as I read. Without delving into what has already been parsed above, here are a few considerations that come to mind. They are not intended to stake a position, but rather to add to (or further muddle) the factors under consideration:

    * To my thinking, there is a huge difference between shooting 19- or 20-year-old pirates–no matter how desperate or to be pitied they are–and shooting at 9- and 10-year-old boys who are being forced to participate in combat between warring tribes, religions, gangs, warlords, etc. And yet, what would any of us do if one of those “kids” was preparing to fire a bullet at us?

    * Piracy is a crime–a major crime at that. It is an act of war, regardless whether or not there is a government in the country from which the attacks are launched.

    * As noted, this is not a new phenomenon; it has been going on for years–in THIS millennium. Safe passage in open waters is, presumably, an internationally accepted right.

    * Setting aside the question as to whether or not the Shoot order was justified, does anyone really believe that the criminals running these operations would stop or limit their piracy if the men had not been killed? At the same time, does anyone really believe that killing the three pirates shifts the blame to the U.S. (in the event that the pirates take their “revenge” by harming or killing the hostages they reportedly have in their control)? It can only be a fantasy, but wouldn’t it be nice if the ships carrying food and relief supplies were met by the same people who now are pirates and escorted to Somalia in order to assure that their cargo got to their starving countrymen?

    * I don’t want to see our Navy launching a campaign to end piracy emanating from Somalia. We are already mired in two wars thrust upon us by President Bush and his equally reprehensible advisors and puppet-masters. If we want to take action, then shouldn’t it be to make clear to the pirates that ships flying the U.S. flag are off-limits and that any violation will prompt an overwhelming military response? I’m for the concept of a peaceful and cooperative “One World,” but perhaps this is just one of those times that we should let the other major nations fight their own battles.

    * I supported and liked Obama as a candidate. I continue to support and like him as President. I can only hope that he makes wise decisions about the myriad problems facing him domestically and internationally. And yet, the presidency has become too complex for any one person to handle, no matter how brilliant and wise he/she is. And that has only been exacerbated by the “now it happens, now you see it” coverage through the Internet and by other media. There is no “right” or “correct” way to handle organized and coordinated piracy. And therein lies the heart of the problem.