Why We Love to Hate Pirates

Make no mistake about it. We hate Somali pirates. What’s more, we love to hate them. In a survey by the Pew Research Center (17-20 April 2009), the capture of the American-flagged Maersk Alabama was the most closely followed news story of that week, displacing the economy, the discovery of CIA torture memos, and potential changes in U.S.-Cuban relations. According to a Rasmussen Reports poll (13-14 April), an overwhelming majority of Americans supported the decision to kill the three pirates who had taken hostage the American captain. Hating the pirates is not a partisan issue, and it is not limited to Americans.

Across countless blogs and media outlets, here and abroad, thousands of people have called unequivocally-often in blunt, colorful language-for killing Somali pirates. “Kill the Pirates” was the headline of a Washington Post op-ed on April 13 by Fred Iklé, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. As Jonah Goldberg wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Shoot the pirates, problem solved.” The mainstream media has described today’s pirates as savage enemies of humankind, with pundits even saying that if it were not for political correctness, international law, and human rights, we could eliminate this scourge. In his blog, Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University blames piracy itself on “a radical interpretation of human rights,” which discourages capturing and trying pirates for fear of violating their rights. He proposes instead a “007 license” with shoot-to-kill permission for commercial ships. Even before the latest incident, Robert Farley and Yoav Gortzak wrote in the December 2008 issue of Foreign Policy, “nobody likes pirates, and nobody-legal niceties aside-really minds too much if you shoot them.”

The hatred is obvious. The question is why. Why the intense emotion, the fascination, the amusement? Why the willingness to bypass legal procedures normally extended to the most heinous murder suspects? Why the self-righteousness and moral outrage against piracy compared to other transnational crimes that are arguably more disturbing and reprehensible, such as the trafficking of children for sexual exploitation, or drug cartels or money launderers or corporate polluters or private mercenaries that fuel armed conflict and take thousands of lives? Why the euphoric celebration when Navy SEALs shoot three teenagers at close range and haul a fourth, whose age is uncertain, to federal court in New York to be tried as an adult? Why the unwillingness to consider the origins of contemporary piracy and devise measured, targeted responses with a prospect of long-term success? Why has piracy taken hold of the public imagination in such a visceral, aggressive, and ultimately puzzling way? Here are five possibilities.

Barbary Wars.

Everyone knows that piracy is a centuries-old problem. When people think of pirates today, they really have in mind seventeenth- and eighteen-century images of buccaneers, Spanish galleons, and plundered loot. Drawing on childhood memories from classic literature-Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, The Red Rover-we watch with delight as heroes best villains in thunderous battles at sea. This is how we picture the Barbary Wars, in which American naval forces confronted Muslim pirates in North Africa more than two-hundred years ago. The custom of the day was to kill pirates on sight and sink their ships. These historical images linger, making the use of military force to halt contemporary piracy appealing and seemingly appropriate. They also underlie the drive to treat piracy as a one-dimensional and atavistic form of criminality, not a complex modern-day political pathology. If piracy today is essentially like piracy from centuries ago, it is easier to advocate the use of force as a solution and to dismiss more costly and comprehensive legal and political responses.

Black Hawk Down.

For Americans at least, even those who cannot find Somalia on a map, the east African country stirs memories of Mogadishu in 1993. On some level, killing Somali pirates is revenge for the deaths of 18 American servicemen more than 15 years ago. The iconic image, depicted in Hollywood’s Black Hawk Down, is of a burning helicopter and dead American soldier being dragged by a Somali crowd through dusty city streets. Did that image influence the on-scene commander’s judgment that the American captain’s life was threatened, or did it even shape the decision to plan an operation to shoot the pirates on the premise of imminent danger? No one knows, though it seems likely that America’s clash with gun-toting Somalis in the 1990s left a score to settle.

The Black Hawk incident also remains the quintessential case of humanitarian intervention gone wrong, helping to explain the American reluctance to intervene in Rwanda’s genocide only six months later. And while the American public typically is reluctant to pay a high price for saving foreigners, absent national security concerns, it loves occasional acts of heroism. The fact that some of the ships being hijacked by pirates today, including the Maersk Alabama, carry humanitarian aid for Somalia only reinforces the idea of us as innocent do-gooders-even saviors-and them as malevolent savages who deserve what they get. In this sense, vengeance and heroism meet in the waters off Somalia to produce a happy ending.

Disney Effect.

Speaking of happy endings, it is easy to trivialize pirates when they are the subject of children’s literature, Disney films, theme parks, and sections of toy stores. As virtually every four-year-old in America knows, socialization about pirates begins early, often with Peter Pan. There is something alluring about the tales of adventure, the colorful costumes, the simple weaponry, and the good versus evil theme. As American cultural consumers grow up and leave Neverland, they transition from J.M. Barrie to Johnny Depp’s more mature cinematic interpretation, tapping into the American film industry’s well-developed repertoire of exoticized, stick-figure foreign adversaries.

Inconveniently, the twenty-first century reality of fishermen-turned-pirates is incomparable to the Disney version. While Somali pirates brandish automatic weapons like we wear wristwatches, their efforts to pull alongside ships in dinghies and clamber aboard is nothing like the movies. Disney nonetheless is firmly embedded in our imagination, making it possible to turn them into caricatures, stripped of the basic rights owed to everyone under international law, such as the right to a free and fair trial. Criminals in democratic societies are afforded these rights by virtue of their humanity. The assumption that pirates are different, existing outside the realm of basic entitlements, reflects a de-humanized image of them-closer to the kid-friendly films of our childhood than the reality of life on and off Somalia’s shores.

War on Terror.

Since September 11th, analogies between contemporary terrorists and historical pirates have become common. Terrorists are portrayed as akin to their seafaring cousins-brazen outlaws, transnational privateers, enemies of mankind. An article by Joshua London in the National Review Online of December 16, 2005 carried the title, “America’s First Terrorists,” referring to the Barbary pirates. As pirate attacks have increased recently, commentators like Robert D. Kaplan have raised the specter of sinister linkages between contemporary pirates and terrorists. The association is not without consequence. Shortly after the recent incident in Somalia, a Rasmussen Reports poll showed voter confidence in the “war on terror” rebounding.

While it is true that terrorism and piracy are both crimes against humanity in international law, differences in historical context reveal a crucial distinction. Years ago, piracy was labeled the first crime against humanity only because it occurred on the high seas, where no governing body ruled. Its extra-territoriality, not the odious nature of the crime, gave jurisdiction to all countries. For most Americans today, the similarities between pirates and terrorists seem natural: foreigners, many of them Muslim, engaging in brutal and seemingly irrational crimes against innocent civilians. The real differences, of course, are monumental. Piracy has political origins in the form of state failure, but pirates do not have political objectives. They are not interested in publicity, in mobilizing supporters, or in polarizing adversaries, and they do not typically set out to kill civilians or engage in grand schemes of psychological manipulation. They are motivated purely by financial gain and are more like the foot soldiers of organized crime than the terrorists of global insurgency. For observers accustomed to lumping together all enemies, the distinctions are inconsequential.

Commerce and Crime.

Money explains why over twenty countries are working to combat piracy off Somalia’s coast, including the European Union’s first naval expedition and China’s first major venture outside the South China Sea. Although piracy is not limited to Somalia’s coast-Africa’s longest-the entire Horn of Africa juts like a dagger into the Arabian Sea to form a strategic chokepoint, and in recent years, private insurance companies have begun to pay billions in ransom on behalf of their ship-owning clients. Not only is piracy proving financially costly and logistically disruptive, but it has become politically embarrassing in a world where naval strength remains an integral dimension of national power. Petty thugs interfering with commerce on the high seas and attacking innocent civilians are not tolerated, and when ships flying the American flag are struck, commerce and nationalism unite to meet the threat.

Never mind that foreigners have engaged in commercial crime off Somalia’s coast for nearly two decades, taking advantage of collapsed state authority on shore. According to the Marine Resources Assessment Group, over 500 ships a year have fished illegally off Somalia’s coast, robbing the country of hundreds of millions of dollars annually. As recently as 2008, the UN envoy to Somalia emphasized illegal fishing and the dumping of toxic waste (mostly by European countries) as dire problems requiring immediate international attention. Toxic waste reportedly has contributed to elevated birth-defect rates and health problems in Somali coastal communities. And yet global outrage is selective and unidirectional, obsessed only with the crime of piracy.

We hate pirates because we have drawn false historical analogies and are swayed by a semi-fictional past that equates them with barbarism. We hate Somali pirates because we remember bitterly our failed attempt to intervene in their country on humanitarian grounds. It is easy to hate them because we have been socialized to imagine pirates as Disney characters, without families, histories, or rights. We have hated them even more since September 11th triggered a global war on terror, with pirates and terrorists seen as one and the same. And our hatred has translated into military action because states and economic barons have come to view Somali piracy as too costly and challenging to be tolerated.

Legal options are available. In principle, national trials in the detaining state are feasible, just as the creation of a special international tribunal for piracy is an option. But the political will for either is altogether absent and the measures taken so far reveal a good-enough-for-the-enemy attitude. While countries like the United Kingdom, the United States, France, and the Netherlands are trying pirates in their home legal systems, the U.S. and U.K. have also transferred captured pirates to Kenya, a country with which they have entered into special agreements. Kenya’s legal system is ill-prepared, and already there are signs of mistreatment and abuse. This is precisely why the Law of the Sea Treaty, to which the United States is not a party, stipulates that pirates should be tried by the country that detains them; universal jurisdiction applies only to apprehension. States have been reluctant to prosecute pirates themselves, fearful of not meeting the high evidentiary standards of their own legal systems and unwilling to deal with asylum requests by pirates facing persecution back home.

So we prefer the use of force, as we did in Iraq, despite the fact that America’s unmatched military power is ineffective against the underlying causes of piracy, and plunking a few plunderers does nothing to reverse a sunken American image in the world. Using force is expedient and the pirates are expendable, even if no one should be overly impressed with shooting teenagers in a lifeboat attached to a warship at 90 feet-the distance from home plate to first base. Military action is indeed a quick, dramatic, and satisfying morale-booster for a battered military and an image-burnisher for an administration concerned about looking soft. It makes for good sound bites and masquerades easily as derring-do, the stuff of Hollywood.

In the end, hating the pirates has very real effects. We convince ourselves that they can be deterred by a show of force, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary-attacks increased after the SEALs operation. We dismiss as naïve calls for a political solution, which would require too much of us: rebuilding Somali state institutions that afford basic protections to the Somali people and providing sustainable support for a country suffering from a multi-year drought and food shortages. We are blind to the potential for unintended consequences like the possibility of piracy becoming more violent, costly, dispersed, and deadly. We ignore the hard choices, even while we remain intensely fascinated by pirate attacks and armed responses that let us live out our childhood and nationalistic fantasies.

Sonia Cardenas and Andrew Fibbert are professors of politics at Trinity College.