PIRATES; or, irrational enthusiasm about ongoing tragedy in Somalia

In general, I try to make sure that most of the posts I write for my blog have at least least some “value-added” behind them.  That is, if I’m not reporting on things I’ve done in my life, I at least try to provide my own original spin on things happening elsewhere.  Tonight, though, I’m breaking this rule: as my life has become progressively consumed by schoolwork, material to write about is becoming scarcer, unless I simply choose to regurgitate interesting things I’ve learned.  That said, there are moments when the intellectual culture at Oxford is so positively exhilarating and vibrant that it feels selfish not to share, so here goes.

Somali pirates: not quite as sexy...

On Monday, I went to a seminar… on pirates.  Somali pirates, to be specific.  I feel slightly guilty for being so enthusiastic about the tragedy that is Somali piracy, especially since if they weren’t labeled pirates, but instead “desperate people with boats taking hostages so they can feed their families,” no one would care about them.  That said, the crammed seminar room suggested that I was not the only person intrinsically enthused by the notion of a sociological seminar on piracy.  And while, deep down, I knew I was mostly there just to hear “cool” stories about pirates, I wound up hearing some mind-blowing results, based on a statistical survey of over 1,000 attacks in the last ten years.  (You can find the actual paper here.)

The first conclusion these researchers came to—and you’re not going to believe this if you follow media accounts of Somali piracy—is that the entire phenomenon is almost entirely non-violent.  The system of piracy has fallen into a shockingly benign choreography.  When pirates “attack” merchant vessels, the crew almost never resists, and if they do—say, by throwing some mattress overboard (yes, really)—the pirates usually just go away, leaving their rocket launchers and assault rifles unused.  The hostages they do take are typically kept in a nice neighborhood of Eyd (okay, nice for Somalia).  In fact, there’s an entire street of restaurants that offer Western food, specifically for them.  Insurance companies almost always pay the ransom, and the pirates inevitably release the hostages and cargo one they are paid (case in point: a group of pirates took a Ukranian tanker with dozens of Russian tanks on it… and then gave them all back when the ransom was paid).  Currently, the media in the U.K. is going nuts over a British couple whose yacht was hijacked and appear to have no way of paying their ransom.  100 days later, though, they still haven’t been harmed.

... and probably not as dangerous...

When pirates are caught in the act by naval forces, they are generally tried in Western nations, serve a few years in prison, and are then granted asylum.  Given that most Western countries now have large Somali diasporas, getting caught isn’t a particularly bad deal.  Indeed, the most violent component of the entire piracy system is the Western naval intervention, which has managed to blow a lot of fisherman out of the water because—apparently—black people in small boats with fishing poles look too much like black people in small boats with AK-47s.

As the researchers suggested, this non-violent equilibrium could be easily disrupted.  Policy makers, bowing to our collective fear of a resurgence of Blackbeard the pirate, have been kicking around the idea of encouraging insurance companies to stop paying ransoms, trying pirates in Kenya rather than the West (somewhat less appealing from the pirates’ point of view), and blasting more of them out of the water.  All of these things are, of course, only likely to make the pirates more desperate, and thus more like the bloodthirsty curs we (incorrectly) think they are.

After demolishing an hope of success for the right-wing get-tough solution to piracy, the researchers decided to turn their academic guns on the bleeding-heart liberal proposals.  At this point in the presentaiton,  I’m pretty sure that the entire audience of left-leaning sociologists was thinking, “Everyone knows you stop piracy not on the sea but on land, by building a more just Somalia.”  Unfortunately, not so.  When you think about it, piracy actually requires a degree of technological sophistication and infrastructure, both of which are rare in Somalia.  Pirates need telecommunications to negotiate ransoms, trade links to the outside world to buy arms and bring in fuel, and a stable enough society to prevent their hostages from being kidnapped and killed.  As it turns out, then, according to the research, those parts of Somalia that have the least conflict have the most pirates.

... but perhaps not as easily defeated.

In the short term, any intervention to strengthen local governments or provide aid to Somalia would only make piracy easier and more appealing.  Pirates bring badly needed money into communities, and because they predate on outsiders, there is almost no incentive for locals to turn against them.  Pirates make around $10,000 a year.  While we like to believe that, someday, all countries can achieve a decent standard of living, it’s pretty clear that, given that Somalia’s per capita income is $291, the day where piracy is no longer financially appealing is pretty far off, whatever we do.

Monday was an object lesson in why sociology is both fantastically intellectual broadening and, with respect to real policies, frustratingly useless.  I left with my preconceptions shattered—but with absolutely no sense of any solution.  And while the researchers suggested that maybe piracy just isn’t that bad, my gut tells me that people having to resort to piracy to survive—as cool as it seems to the part of my brain that still wishes I were Peter Pan—is not a good thing.

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Jukebox: Gaslight Anthem – Sink or Swim

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