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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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An inquest into the justification for the killing of the pirates is unwarranted and misguided.

If the rule of law -- the same rule of law that says pirates get precious few rights -- says that there should be paperwork and review, then there should be paperwork and review. This is not liberal bleeding hearts sympathizing with impoverished Somalian children, this is the rules. The SEAL snipers are professionals, I am impressed as hell at their skills, but this is part of being a professional, and part of obeying the law.

And I agree with LB, there is no need for all the rah-rah. This sucked. It could have sucked a lot worse, and I am glad that it didn't. If there's non-lethal ways of reducing piracy (for instance, continuous surveillance with those drones that we use in Pakistan, or those surveillance blimps that we use to stop smuggling in the Gulf of Mexico), we should prefer them to shooting people. On a purely greedy level, Somalia is a likely base for terrorism, and we did not make it less likely by shooting those pirates. If any of the inappropriate rah-rah makes it back to Somalia (not that likely, but if), it will not help us win friends and influence people. This will probably have costs, down the road.

"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?"

Yes. Of course.

"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."

Yes they are, you're making them overly complicated. The question isn't when we should shoot *as a rule*, the question is; what is the most prudent course of action for getting the hostages out of danger in any [b]particular[/b] situation.

"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"

That's a false dichotomy, in so much as the commanders were given a standing order from the President.

Do most military officers view it as an insult to their professionalism that excessive legalism can tie their hands?

Not just costs down the road, costs already. A New Jersey congressman on a visit to Somalia already came under fire.

I thought Frank Castellano's remark was odd this morning on NPR when the interviewer asked him about his feelings regarding the closeness of the pirates to the Captian. He said something along the lines of "he didn't want to get into that now".

The transcrpit is pending but you can listen to it here.

Somalia is one of the poorest places on the planet. Those guns were made in Russia and spread to Somalia with Western imperialism. Be creating a global economy and raping cultures into the third world, we've created this environment. Those pirates are trying to make a living based on what's available to them, just like Mexicans crossing the border with drugs or Wall Streeters destroying the financial lives of millions.

Of course, according to standards of decency and morality the Pirates are wrong, but the buck doesn't stop there.

This is the sort of thing that turns liberals into ridiculous caricatures. As soon as these pirates/kidnappers started pointing and firing their guns at cargo ships- it doesn't matter if they are 17 or 70- they have made themselves into legitimate targets. The Navy sharpshooter needs absolutely no other provocation to shoot these pirates dead. The only regret is they didn't shoot these pirates 2 days earlier. Also- these kidnappers have been given 5 days to surrender. They have been given every chance to save their own lives and they refused to take it. Am I rejoicing over the pirates' death? Absolutely. There is a huge world of difference between innocent civillian dying in a cross-fire; and ruthless armed kidnappers killed while in the middle of their crime. Being a liberal doesn't mean you have to take these ludicrous stance like you are doing here complaining about the raw deal the pirates got.

Who says these pirates were killers, or willing to kill? The clearly established M.O. of the Somali pirates is to hold ships and hostages for ransom. Yes, they're armed. But out of the hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of hostages they've taken over the past several years, have they killed any?

As for the justification that one of the pirates was pointing a gun at the captain: Not to be flip, but isn't that part of any hostage situation? The captor who's watching the hostage has a weapon at the ready and brandishes it from time to time or if you make any sudden moves. I sincerely hope there is more to the commander's decision to fire than the simple fact of a gun being pointed, and that some detail or nuance is getting lost in the reporting so far.

They lit up the Colosseum in Rome the other night to acknowledge New Mexico's repeal of the death penalty. Ironic considering the tradition of bloodsport there, but people evolve.
(Though really slowly, and not at the same rate......)

More to the point.... sometimes you just have no choice. As here. So, how about we move on and hope it doesn't have to happen again?

Eric: the Independent does not even allege that the pirates were attacking a ship that dumped radioactive waste or illegally fished in Somali waters. By omission, it admits that the pirates raided an innocent ship and kidnapped its captain.

We use snipers in situations like this at home. It's not the preferable outcome, but even for criminals who would otherwise have all the rights of a citizen under the rule of law, sometimes you just have to take a clean shot when you can get it. The lives of the hostages are paramount.

Accountability isn't excessive legalism. Wise, ethical military leaders probably appreciate the double-edged sword. On the one hand, their decisions might be questioned.

On the other hand, their decisions might be vindicated. Furthermore, transparency helps ensure that the higher ups don't pressure them to do illegal things. Think about all the careers that were eventually (quite properly) ruined at Abu Ghraib prison because the authorities took advantage of secrecy to pressure U.S. soldiers into breaking the law.

Everyone's decisions are subject to question. We're all human beings.

The standoff had gone on for four days - hardly a sign of trigger-happiness on the part of the USN. As for the public reaction, that is pretty much Human Nature 101.

(Likewise the bluster by some pirates about taking revenge - they are in it for the money, and the lesson they'll take away is to concentrate on ships flying flags of convenience, not US, French, or other countries with lots of big gray ships.)

The knee-jerk idiotic defensiveness on display here is pathetic. What's wrong with finding out via an official report (and not just MSM chatter) what went down here? If they were right, OK. If not, we deal with that. Because killing people is a serious matter requiring serious consideration, or at least it ought to be.

I am a progressive too, but I have a really hard time giving sympathy to these supposedly "desperate" pirates.

These guys weren't hungry for food or shelter. They weren't stealing bread (or rice, or injera) from a local store -- or money to buy such things. I'd be somewhat sympathetic to that type of stealing, if it were nonviolent.

They were well-fed, trained, committed, organized criminals with high-powered rifles who were out to steal millions of dollars -- and were prepared to kill in order to do so. This is not the "desperation" of the poor for sustenance -- this is mercenary, conscience-less greed.

And when these individuals -- teenagers or not -- picked up their weapons, got on their boat, waited on the high seas for days, and then carefully attacked a huge ship with their machine guns ready to fire (or firing), they knew EXACTLY what they were doing.

And as they planned and worked for days (or weeks) to carry this off -- in addition to any attacks they might have done or tried in the past -- they also perfectly well knew that they were taking the risk that the same type of bullets that they carried in their guns could hit them instead.

If it were my loved one on that boat (or in a similar hostage situation in the U.S., or anywhere in the world), and the criminal hostage-takers were not negotiating, I would absolutely cheer for the best shooters in the world to be ready to shoot to kill those responsible.

Alon, the point is that the world pillaged Somalia (mostly Europeans) and nothing was done. This doesn't excuse the Somalian pirates, but it does say that they're not the only pirates.

" Think about all the careers that were eventually (quite properly) ruined at Abu Ghraib prison because the authorities took advantage of secrecy to pressure U.S. soldiers into breaking the law."

But there's no law against shooting pirates under the authority of a standing order from the President.

John, nobody ever alleged that the Somali pirates were the only outlaws in the world. They just happened to be the only outlaws that took a hostage at that particular place and time.

How many times do I have to reiterate my point: This isn't about feeling sorry for the pirates. If anyone makes that argument again, I'm going to assume they're not even reading what I'm saying, or simply arguing in bad faith.

I'm saying it's really pathetic for the Americans to be so elated about this triumph because the adversaries were so petty. The SEALs took out what Sec. Gates called untrained teenagers. These are not high-level warlords, they're foot soldiers.

Which makes it TACKY to say the least that we're having a week long celebration of how cleanly our the special forces snipers took them out. Big deal. I should hope the world's only remaining superpower could pull that much off. Nothing against the SEALs, they did a great job, but let's have some perspective here.

Alon Levy -

The Independent UK article isn't trying to defend individuals, just to inform the public about where the situation came from that there are pirates near Somalia.

No, the Independent is trying to muddy the waters by making pirates look like heroic defenders of national sovereignty.

But what counts as imminent danger? Wouldn't you guys like to know? We need more evidence, not just backslapping and flag waving.
Those are interesting questions indeed. The fact that the pirates are the same age as soldiers throughout history is simply irrelevent to the discussion.

This is what happens when you declare war on stateless criminals. You aggrandize bit players and make them into a symbol of some larger drama. Other people start looking at them as if they were symbols of something beyond personal greed. Drug traffickers become folk heroes, pirates are recast as defenders of Somali sovereignty.

The fact that most wars are fought by scared teenagers makes all of military history less glorious than we're often led to believe.

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