Don’t Call Somali Pirates Terrorists

In this article the author, Douglas R. Burgess Jr., attempts to make the case that the pirates operating out of Somalia are terrorists. In doing so, he takes the dangerously broad interpretation of the word terrorist, that which certain participants in the War On Terror proselytize, and tries to spread it out some more. Such blanket terms and the deficient policies that come with them make problems instead of solving them. Recent examples include Halloween streakers being charged as sex offenders in Colorado and electronic objects and clothing being treated as bombs in Boston. Naked people don’t automatically want to bugger children, exposed circuits don’t always explode, and international criminals don’t always want to achieve an ideological goal by means of fear and violence, even the Arabic speaking ones.

Burgess’s fails at reducing piracy on the high seas to terrorism because he misses a simpler truth. Pirates, like those operating off the cost Somalia, just want the money. This motive explains why they patiently hold ships, cargo, and crew members for ransom, as opposed to the proper terrorists who took hostages just to kill them in Mumbai. Burgess tries to justify his reduction with the ancient Roman reasoning that pirates are “enemies of the human race” as paraphrased by Edward Coke, a 16th century English jurist. Surely this reasoning resembles contemporary sentiment for proper terrorists, but the world should know by now not to let sentiment steer foreign policy. Anyone still seeking this conclusion for himself need only recall President Bush’s assertion of the presence of soul in the dreamy eyes of Vladimir Putin. Burgess goes on to claim that the inability of navies to defeat the pirates results from a jurisdictional Gordian knot in that no nation knows how to treat the pirates. Let’s just treat ’em like terrorists, he argues. Taking care of terrorism is also everybody’s responsibility, because you’re either with us or against us, right? With this argument though, he swings at the wrong Gordian knot with a dull blade.

Even if the world’s naval powers could round up all the pirates in the Gulf of Aiden, sending them to the various Guantanamos in the world would constitute an irresponsible and unreasonable effort. Such an effort would distract from going after real terrorists. Furthermore, if Burgess would actually compare the Somali pirates with Al Qaeda or Lashkar-e-Taiba, he’d see that they represent dissimilar threats. The Somali pirates threaten private property, while proper terrorist organizations specifically target and kill people. Given limited resources, I can’t imagine how Burgess could assign pirates to the same class as terrorists. And if we have to fight a War on Piracy, the War on Terrorism makes for a poor example to follow. I surmise that those who disagree enjoy confusing terms like criminal, solider, unlawful combatant, and prisoner of war and inventing others like illegal enemy combatant and detainee. I won’t bother to get into the issues of having a war on ideas or things like drugs and, of course, terrorism. 

If I recall my history lessons correctly, then interpreting the ancient Romans’ sentiments of piracy assuming anything but an ancient Roman’s perspective will lead to confusion. For all they cared, the Roman Empire was civilization and Romans were the human race. They filed everyone else under the category of barbarians. So piracy on the high seas threatened commerce and thus Roman interests. Indeed, piracy still threatens modern commerce just as it did back then, but one has to stretch to assert that the world revolves around these affected business interests. Furthermore, Burgess can’t call the Somali pirates enemies of the human race unless he thinks Somalis don’t count. After all, I imagine that a good amount of the ransom money helps to put food on Somali tables.

Yes, piracy has bad consequences, but calling piracy terrorism will just lead to more bad consequences. I propose a more dignified solution. Just let the pirates continue their operations. Let them organize. Eventually the companies shipping things through Somali waters will get tired of the risks and ransoms. Some will take longer, more expensive routes to bypass the threat. And some, I hope, will negotiate and pay the pirates in advance. Such an arrangement would preclude violence and provide income to Somalia to make up for that which it cannot earn by fishing anymore. The pirates will become an authority in the region. They will seek to maintain power and keep competing and depreciating interests out, including proper terrorists. One could call my idea a cop-out that could potentially lead to the establishment of a pirate state in Somalia, but it beats playing a game of neo-conservative semantics.

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4 Responses to “Don’t Call Somali Pirates Terrorists”

  1. The conflations of terrorism stem from a more serious problem; no one agrees on a single definition of terrorism. There are over 50 distinct definitions of terrorism that have been proposed. Moreover, many acts people wish to call terrorism are not terrorism under many definitions. For example, one common definition of terrorism is deliberate attacks on civilian populations by non-state actors without uniforms and a chain of command. By that definition many of the attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan which are aimed at US troops are not terrorism.

    Furthermore, there is another issue; labeling everything terrorism dilutes the moral impact. Terrorism should only include real attacks on basic human rights and common values shared by civilized individual. If terrorism means simply acts of violence that we don’t like then the moral force of labeling acts terrorism is diminished.

  2. Indeed, I should have made these points myself, but I was eager to finish the post before people stopped caring about pirates. I also really wanted to show some love for the potential existence of a pirate state, not because I condone holding people and their ships for ransom, but because it would be the most interesting outcome.

  3. Wrong. Pirates don’t “just want money”. They’ve killed captives in the past. Do some research.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/africaCrisis/idUSL15534801

  4. “The pirates shot him because they were angry that the ship owner was not talking to them”

    This experience shows owners of hijacked vessels need to cooperate with the pirates, as the crew are at their mercy.

    I don’t see how the article you posted suggests that they don’t just want money. Now, go back to your troll cave.

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