Commentary Magazine


Prosecuting Pirates

It’s nice to read in the Wall Street Journal that more shipping companies are embarking armed security guards to protect their ships off the coast of Somalia. That will certainly strike a blow against the pirates who had another record year in 2009. But the Journal also notes that “the majority of the international maritime community resists using lethal force because it ‘poses incredible logistical challenges, potentially violates many national and international laws, and is contrary to maritime conventions,’ says James Christodoulou, chief executive of Industrial Shipping Enterprises Corp.”

It is incumbent upon shipping companies to do more to protect their vessels. But it is also incumbent upon the world’s leading state to do more to safeguard maritime commerce. All the warships cruising off the coast of East Africa can accomplish little as long as they lack the legal authority to treat pirates as combatants rather than as potential criminal suspects. This is yet another instance where the Obama administration (like the Bush administration before it) insists on using normal legal safeguards in a situation where they don’t apply. That makes it impossible for our naval ships to blow pirates out of the water or bombard their lairs on land. Even when caught, most pirates are released because there is no desire to try them in our courts — or those of Western Europe. This would be another excellent use for the terrorist tribunals set up by Congress because pirates are, after all, another species of international rogue. Their activities are, in fact, often indistinguishable from those of terrorists, who also use criminal schemes to finance their operations. But what chance is there that we will get tough with Somalian buccaneers if we are extending the full panoply of constitutional rights even to the likes of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad?