Piracy is thriving at the beginning of the twenty-first century—and no, I’m not talking about people playing fast and loose with intellectual property rights by illegally downloading music, films, or software. The past few years have seen a resurgence of actual, honest-to-goodness armed pirates terrorizing the high seas. They may have traded in their peg legs and eye patches for assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, but other than that, they’re back to their old tricks.

Incidents of piracy have been increasing for three straight years, according to the Piracy Reporting Centre of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), with the global total shooting up to 406 in 2009, from 263 in 2008. Somali pirates accounted for over half of the 2009 incidents, including 47 of the 49 hijackings and 867 of the 1052 crew members taken hostage. On January 18 of this year, the Greek supertanker Maran Centaurus was released by Somali pirates in exchange for a $9 million ransom, according to a report by Agence France-Presse. Why, in this modern world of ours, has piracy managed to stage such an impressive comeback?

When Crime Pays

At first glance, I’d say there are, oh, 9 million reasons why piracy is on the rise. When crime pays, criminals multiply, and piracy in the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen has lately been paying off big time. Nine million dollars is a new record for ransoms, at least among pirates, but 3 million is apparently common for the return of the most valuable ships. And every year, some 20,000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden, an important trade route that links the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean beyond.
If the payoffs for pirates are high, the risks remain quite low. It would be ungenerous to say that the international community has just rolled over in the face of more frequent attacks, but it has not exactly responded with overwhelming force, either. The IMB gives some credit to “the increased presence and coordination of the international navies” in the Gulf of Aden. It notes, for instance, that although incidents of Somali piracy almost doubled from 111 in 2008 to 217 in 2009, actual hijackings rose only from 42 to 47. This is faint praise, however. The numbers still went up, partly as a result of pirates moving out to the Indian Ocean, where intercepting them is much more difficult.

Buried Treasure?

Beyond a high reward-to-risk ratio, many seek to explain, and partially excuse, the criminal behavior of Somali pirates by looking for underlying causes. Certainly, the relative chaos in Somalia, which has lacked a functioning central government since 1991, makes it easy for pirates to find safe harbor in that country. There is also a great deal of poverty in Somalia, though some have argued that it has fared better than its neighbors since descending into “anarchy.” (See Sidebar.) At any rate, poverty does not necessarily translate into piracy elsewhere in the world.
Another explanation has been offered up by pirates themselves, and echoed by such alternative news sources as Democracy Now! The claim is that ever since the collapse of the central government in 1991, foreign ships have engaged in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in Somali waters, thereby depriving local fishermen of their livelihood. Foreign ships are also accused of dumping industrial, toxic, and even nuclear waste along the Somali coast, despoiling the country’s natural resources. Somali fisherman had little choice, the story goes, but to resort to piracy to make ends meet—and to mete out some justice in the process. Pirates even refer to themselves as a volunteer coast guard for a country too disorganized to have an official one.
The U.S. Department of State rejects this as “a spurious justification for criminal behavior.” It points out in a fact sheet that Somali pirates regularly venture out 1,000 miles from shore and attack yachts, cruise ships, and oil tankers that clearly are not engaged in fishing. (“No Justification for Piracy off Coast of Somalia,” December 17, 2009.) If the goal really were to counter illegal activities and protect Somali fishermen’s interests, why not do that, and charge a small fee for the service? Going instead for the golden payoff of a big ransom from a wealthy but innocent ship owner largely undermines any claim to moral high ground.

Finding Our Moral Compass

So will these thugs ever be forced to walk the plank? Certainly, the pirates who attacked the Maersk Alabama in April 2009 met with some stiff resistance. Captain Richard Phillips saved his ship and crew from harm by offering himself up as a hostage. Then, after a tense five-day standoff, U.S. Navy Seal snipers rescued Captain Phillips by shooting and killing his three captors. But this incident’s command on our attention only emphasizes its uncommon storyline.
The American government says it is committed to dealing with the problem of Somali piracy, but an all-out effort may not be worth the cost. Deploying the number of warships required to extirpate the pirates would be too expensive, especially since American ships (or American-flagged ships, at least) are almost never targeted.
A little perspective on the magnitude of the problem is in order. Although piracy is growing, only 47 ships were hijacked in the Gulf of Aden last year out of the 20,000 that sailed through. The chance of being hijacked therefore amounted to only one quarter of 1 percent, which means each ship had a 99.75% chance of passing through and not being taken. Worldwide, only 68 crewmembers were injured in piracy incidents in 2009. Only 8 were killed. Admittedly, each of those deaths was a personal tragedy, and an injustice as well. But with millions of people around the world victimized or threatened by aggression every year, how many of our finite resources should we deploy to save eight lives? We must make some tough choices about where to place our efforts.
What about hiring armed guards? The IMB, in a document of best practices for deterring pirates, actually advises against it, which sounds to me like telling rape victims not to struggle lest they anger their attackers. Personally, I would favor loudly broadcasting a message to would-be rapists that their potential victims are packing heat and have been trained to use it. Armed guards on ships, however, may just, again, be uneconomical, costing an estimated $40,000 to $60,000 per transit compared to “only” $20,000 per trip for insurance. (“Who’s Afraid of Somali Pirates?” David Herbert, National Journal, May 16, 2009.)
All of this weighing of costs and benefits is somewhat unsatisfying from a moral point of view, of course. Aggression against innocents, whether “justified” by grievances real or imagined, is wrong, pure and simple. Perhaps after a few more ransoms approach the $10 million mark, the calculus will tip in favor of getting serious about enforcing the rule of law on the high seas.

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