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April 14, 2009

Enough dead teen pirate porn already

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. Even Mother Jones has a post entitled "Obama is the pirate-killingest president ever."

Gates said the four pirates involved in taking Phillips hostage were 17 to 19 years old -- "untrained teenagers with heavy weapons." The pirate whom Reza wounded in the hand asked the USS Bainbridge for medical attention, effectively surrendering. [WaPo]

All the jubilation is distracting from some serious questions about U.S. policy towards piracy.

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.

Given the international significance of this incident I hope that a full and impartial report will be made available to the public in English, Arabic, and Somali. When the police shoot hostage takers, they're held accountable for their decisions. We need the same level of transparency when the military goes after criminals on the high seas.

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.

But realistically, nobody's going to ask the commander to justify his decision. He spared the politicians some difficult choices about whether to authorize lethal commando raids to liberate hostages, as the French have done.

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.

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Some Somalians have resorted to piracy in desperation because developed nations have destroyed their fisheries, scooping up all the fish in their waters and making it impossible for them to support themselves in traditional ways - see http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/1120/p09s01-coop.html . The article explains how Somalis' efforts to defend their waters from foreign fishing boats quickly devolved into piracy. This is not to excuse piracy or to say that shooting those young men was wrong, but the root causes need to be addressed, if only for practical reasons. It's impossible to kill every potential or actual enemy. And it's all too easy for us well-fed folks to ignore the pain of these teenagers' lives. The author is right that exulting over their deaths is a little disgusting.

They are pirates by the standard accepted international definition, in that their motives have degenerated from acting as a rump coast guard to economic blackmail with human life as the trading card. That is not acceptable behavior by any standard.

International law is clear. There is either law or you get the situation off the coast of Somalia. Any hand wringing in absence of the situation facing the on scene guys is irrelevant, and makes the arguer seem like some sort of loon.

Teens with heavy artillery and the demonstrated will to use it to steal and kill deserve to be shot at just like adults under the same circumstances.
Yes, I'm tired of hearing about the rescue, too, but I'm not losing any sleep over anyone, anywhere of any age who chooses to use a gun (or other weapon) to commit a crime and loses his or her life in the process.

Kill em' all!

Waaaay too much nuance for the hive mind to handle, Lindsay.

The American popular imagination sees everything as a gigantic cosmic football game: "Kill 'em!! Kill 'em!!! Rah!!" The notion that any particular action might have been both necessary and lamentable is just too damn hard for some folks to understand.

Secretary Gats said something unpredicably remarkable about those teens: that if foreign policy (OUR foreign policy) did more to help the people of Somalia, teenagers wouldn't feel crime was their only option.

All this quibbling over the legal rights of pirates, if any, is missing the point. They were hostage-takers. Period. Their status as pirates, or pawns of some warlord somewhere, is immaterial to the discussion of whether or not they are valid targets in a hostage rescue.

These were not summary executions. It was a hostage rescue. If the team had rescued the hostage and then shot the criminals after, that would be different. But, that's not what happened.

To allow the hostage's life and safety to continue to be at the whims of a band of heavily armed teenagers (as you've pointed out) while some half-assed negotiation process continues to drag on after five days... is insane. The rescue team saw an opportunity to eliminate the captors and they took it. Just as they should have.

I read and enjoy your blog often, but your sympathy is misplaced here. And I'm as big a bleeding heart as they come. I'm against the death-penalty. And I'm a firm and steadfast proponent of due process for all people everywhere, citizens, combatants, non-combatants, terrorists, pirates, whatever. But, that was never the situation here. It was not an execution. They were killed in the very act of placing someone's life in imminent danger.

As others have pointed out, his life was in imminent danger for the entire 5 days. Whether one of the pirates was actually pointing a gun at him that very second is immaterial. The point is that he could've been killed at any time with little or no warning. You try sitting in a boat for 5 days with an assault rifle in your back and tell me different.

And again, the media circus is revolting. You got that part right.

"The notion that any particular action might have been both necessary and lamentable is just too damn hard for some folks to understand."

It's lamentable that the situation in Somalia is such that piracy is flourishing as a viable vocation, as it were. It's not "lamentable" that people who engaged in piracy we killed in the course of it. I suppose that is something of a hard distinction to make.

Lindsay, the better equivalence would be: what would we feel like if (from an editorial in today's Boston Globe):
"foreign - mostly European - fishing trawlers taking $300 million per year worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster out of Somali waters. That anger only grew when the tsunami of 2005 washed leaking barrels of radioactive materials and other hazardous waste onto Somali shores, sickening the locals."

But we know, we all felt nothing. Nothing was done. There's no excuse for piracy, but there's no excuse for ruining the livelihood of a million Somalians.

Also, do you think this makes it more or less likely that Somalians will turn to more direct terrorism--lashing out at the world that ruined their country?

Forget third world mores about maturity. 18 is normal draft age in developed countries that still have conscription. Even 16 isn't unheard of - WW1 and WW2 literature teems with stories of 16- and 17-year-old Americans who lied about their ages to join. Let's not compare them to 11-year-old child soldiers in Sierra Leone, who are drugged so that they'll fight for the warlord.

Wow, the response to this article is completely depressing. The predominant assumption that the commander's orders were justified is astonishing. The high level of political pressure was in play, and the expectation he was free from it is totally unrealistic.

Anytime someone is killed, there should be an independent investigation, whether it's by a government or not. That is the core concept of any modern justice system. If the captive was in immediate danger, then there is nothing to worry about. If he wasn't, well, then the U.S. has some apologies to make (and money to pay out).

The frontline soldiers in most armies are teen-agers. This has been true as long as their have been armies. Should we not have fought WWII because most of Germany's and Japan's soldiers were teen-agers and our teenage army was going to be sent to kill or be killed? A teen-ager who picks up a weapon has just emancipated himself. These pirates were young men, but men none the less.

As I said in the original post, if the hostage was in imminent danger, then the SEALs did the right thing.

They might have done the right thing even if the hostage wasn't in any more imminent danger than he had been an hour or a day earlier.

But what counts as imminent danger? Wouldn't you guys like to know? We need more evidence, not just backslapping and flag waving. If you don't think it's an interesting question, nobody's forcing you to learn anything. I'd just like to be clear about why and under what authority our government is killing people on the world stage. I don't trust powerful people to automatically make the right decisions, even if they have good intentions. That's why we need transparency and critique.

If this is such a great victory, why so much defensiveness about a full report?

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

Seriously? If residents of Palm Beach, Florida suddenly start waylaying international sea traffic and violently taking crews hostage, I'd say let the aggrieved nations' militaries have at 'em. International piracy is one of those "at-risk" occupations. You want to earn a few million in ransom by high jacking freight and taking hostages? Then you must be prepared to take a few grams of lead in the noggin. That's the contract.

"If he wasn't, well, then the U.S. has some apologies to make (and money to pay out)."

Not so much.

Lighten up, Francis.

"But what counts as imminent danger?"

I think a few of us have opined that we regard being held at gunpoint as being in imminent danger as a rule.

The fact that many of the pirates are teenagers is sad, but makes absolutely no difference in how they should be treated. Piracy is a crime against all nations. Freedom of navigation in international waters is a right that every nation believes in. The US now has an opportunity to lead in the efforts to quell piracy in the region. We can build bridges with our adversaries such as Iran and Russia, who have naval vessels in the area, by working together in our common interest.
An inquest into the justification for the killing of the pirates is unwarranted and misguided. No commander takes giving the order to fire lightly, and the last thing our naval commanders need is for armchair generals second guessing their decisions. The hostage, our navy and our President are all fortunate that things turned out the way they did. It's a testament to the skill and training of our military. It turned out well, so let's just leave it at that.

Take a hostage in any American town and soon there will be a SWAT team there with your head in the crosshairs. The question is: Does that deter hostage-taking? I think not because taking a hostage is an act of desperation whether its in Somolia or Kansas.

If this is such a great victory, why so much defensiveness about a full report?

A foreign policy realist would say that it would make commanders second-guess themselves in the future, causing them to err on the side of not shooting even when it might be necessary. A neocon would say that and add that a public investigation would make pirates think they're less likely to be killed, encouraging them to take more hostages. I don't know if I agree with either statement, but there might be valid reasons not to investigate.

If you define "imminent danger" as being held at gunpoint, do you think police should use the same criterion when dealing with American hostage-takers? I'm not asking whether they have the legal right to shoot anyone with a hostage. I'm asking whether you think it's ethically justifiable or wise to give the authorities on the scene carte blanche to shoot hostage-takers.

Do you think it's okay to shoot armed hostage-takers only after negotiations have failed, or is it okay to just shoot first and ask questions later? These aren't simple questions. And whatever answers you decide raises further questions about how to make sure that these powers aren't abused.

KILL SOME MORE OF THEM AT SEA AND THEN WORK INLAND AND KILL THE REST OF THEM. GO SEALS

Those are bullshit arguments. If the commander acted in good faith according to the rules of engagement, he's in the clear. If he didn't follow the rules, he should be accountable.

I don't buy the argument that fear of scrutiny would make a commander less likely to shoot according to the rules of engagement. He's a trained military leader who is accustomed to making life and death decisions. It's insulting to his professionalism to argue that he'd be afraid to act within the rules for fear of public opprobrium.

The commander works for us, & should be held accountible to report, Let me be the FIRST to say, You are an idiot, I think there should be more of the same, Take them out, let the pirates know its time to learn a new trade or perish! And why is it that we should consider there poor economic situation, When there own government or lack there of wont. Ther are people in there own country that could have - should have - & still can stop the ludicres action, But wont as long as we & other countries keep paying the price for the pirates action.

From the Independent UK:

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.

...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".

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