You have probably heard by now that – at President Obama’s call – U.S. Navy snipers went gangster on a group of Somali pirates attempting to hold an American captain hostage. I think it was a great call by the President and outstanding work by our Armed Forces. They seriously went Jack Bauer on Captain Hook and the rest of squad. Much like President Bush (though Dubya had a tendency to take things way too far), President Obama made the message clear: you mess with the U.S., prepare to get it. Hopefully this will quell some of the hysteria brewing lately over piracy, though I’m not entirely holding my breath.
As good as it is to hear that Captain Phillips is OK, there is another aspect of this whole thing that continues to pick at me; namely the backstory not so widely covered by the media. Sure, the Somalian pirates are bad people. But if there is one thing I have learned in following the media, it’s that there is always more story than what meets the eye. Just as the war movie Black Hawk Down manipulated facts to hammer home the point that Somalians are evil, attention about Somali pirates has been missing important context. Writes Johann Hari from the Independent:
In 1991, the government of Somalia collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country’s food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.
Yes: nuclear waste. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.
Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: “Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury – you name it.” Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to “dispose” of cheaply. When I asked Mr Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: “Nothing. There has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention.”
At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia’s seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish stocks by overexploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m-worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are being stolen every year by illegal trawlers. The local fishermen are now starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka 100km south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: “If nothing is done, there soon won’t be much fish left in our coastal waters.”
This is the context in which the “pirates” have emerged. Somalian fishermen took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least levy a “tax” on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia – and ordinary Somalis agree. The independent Somalian news site WardheerNews found 70 per cent “strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence”.
No, this doesn’t make hostage-taking justifiable, and yes, some are clearly just gangsters – especially those who have held up World Food Programme supplies. But in a telephone interview, one of the pirate leaders, Sugule Ali: “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas.” William Scott would understand.
Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our toxic waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome? We won’t act on those crimes – the only sane solution to this problem – but when some of the fishermen responded by disrupting the transit-corridor for 20 per cent of the world’s oil supply, we swiftly send in the gunboats.
As it turns out, even assessments from the United Nations tell a similar story.
My point here is not to make some extreme leftist endorsement of piracy. But this story does bear questioning: in the grand scheme of things, can these acts of piracy be chalked up to self-defense?