Probably not the biggest threat to the republic, but a growing annoyance nonetheless, is the threat of piracy against commercial shipping. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reports a dramatic increase of pirate attacks in 2008. There were a total of 199 pirate attacks reported to the IMB during the first nine months of this year. “The increased frequency of piracy and heightening levels of violence are of significant concern to the shipping industry and all mariners. The types of attacks, the violence associated with the attacks, the number of hostages taken, and the amounts paid in ransoms for the release of the vessels have all increased considerably,” stated IMB Director Captain Pottengal Mukundan.
A lot of the increased pirate activity is off the coast of Somalia, particularly in the Gulf of Aden. This region accounts for almost a third of pirate attacks worldwide. Kenyan officials estimate that the Somali pirates have made at least $150 million in ransom money. That was before the pirates seized a Saudi oil tanker carrying $100 million worth of crude oil last week. They are demanding $25 million in ransom for the ship and crew.
Like good businessmen, the pirates are re-investing much of their ill-gotten booty (that’s the only movie-pirate terminology I’ll use, I promise me hearties!) back into their business. The pirates appear to be buying new and better speedboats, and more powerful weapons such as rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPG’s) and 14.5 mm heavy machine-guns.
The growing threat has caused national governments and the U.N. to reluctantly say that they should probably do… something. Several nations already have a few warships patrolling the area. NATO has four vessels in the region, soon to be replaced with four from the European Union. The U.S. 5th Fleet also has several ships patrolling the area and the Yemeni Coast Guard is working hard.
However, U.N. rules restrict the ability of naval forces to respond to pirate attacks. NATO spokesman James Appathurai explains: “[Navy ships] can patrol. They can deter. They can even stop attacks that are happening, but what they do not do is then board the ship that has been hijacked elsewhere to try and free it.”
While global bureaucrats scratch their heads and try to figure out how to deal with pirates, the shipping industry is doing what it can. They have re-routed ships around dangerous areas, which may add thousands of extra miles to a trip, increasing costs. They have advised their crews of passive measures such as traveling at night without lights, to avoid detection and battening all hatches to avoid boarding. Private security companies, such as the now infamous Blackwater, have offered their own patrol boats to protect shipping for a price.
Lest we make this problem more complicated than what it is, let’s look at the facts. Pirates are just criminals, like seaborne muggers. Navy ships (like cops) cannot be everywhere and therefore cannot guarantee the safety of every civilian ship. The similarities to routine street crime are apparent. A partial solution to reducing piracy is therefore pretty similar to what has reduced violent crime domestically: reduce the number of unarmed victims.
While some ships have done so for years, arming civilian mariners faces several challenges. Firstly, squeamish trade groups such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) oppose doing so because they believe it puts crews at greater risk. Instead, the IMO recommends that merchant ships take the passive measures listed above and post lookouts with high-pressure water hoses to ward off pirates. Spraying pirates who have rocket-launchers and heavy machine-guns with a water hose is the safe option? Sounds like ritualistic suicide. Spraying them with lead makes more sense to me. Since one cruise ship was able to scare away armed pirates with simulated machine-gun fire, it’s obvious that REAL guns would have a deterrent effect.
Second, arming civilian crews faces legal challenges. Mariners are bound by the national laws of the ports that they visit. Since most nations outlaw civilian gun ownership, crew members would risk arrest at most stops.
If everybody is so afraid of armed civilians, why not wave the federal magic wand over armed volunteers and turn them into “officials.” How about a program similar to the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program, run by the Federal Air Marshall Service, implemented among civilian airline pilots after 9-11?
Willing crew members, employed by willing ship owners, could volunteer for the program. They would receive weapons training from the U.S. government and some type of official recognition, perhaps with special membership in the Navy or Coast Guard Reserves. Official status would no doubt allow the crew members to enter into more ports than they could as armed civilians, as well as allowing them weapons that they might not otherwise have access to. One or two crew members manning weapons such as the M2 .50 caliber machine-gun, M240 7.62mm machine-gun, Mk-19 automatic grenade launcher or even light weapons would not only deter pirate attacks but would give ships a fighting chance against them if they attack anyway. [The merchant seaman pictured above (circa 1984) is armed with a 12 gauge shotgun. While effective for repelling boarders close-in, it’s effective range of 50 yards would be outclassed by the heavy weapons used by today’s pirates.] The program could require that these weapons be securely stowed under lock and key until needed, as the FFDO program does.
This wouldn’t be the perfectly libertarian solution to the pirate problem. That solution would be the high-seas equivalent of “Vermont Carry,” wherein civilians carry whatever guns they want, no permit required. Unfortunately there’s no way other countries would recognize this right.
But a voluntary, government sanctioned program as described above, in addition to un-sanctioned arms bearing and passive security measures, would help to reduce piracy of American vessels. It would give civilians more flexibility in protecting their lives and their livelihood. That’s always a good thing.