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Arming Ships and Repelling Pirates

Friday, November 20, 2009

It was widely reported this week that the Maersk Alabama -- the American-flagged ship that was captured by pirates last April -- came under attack for the second time in seven months as Somali pirates once again tried to hijack the ship early Wednesday morning off the Somalia coast. 

In the April attack, pirates were successful in boarding the ship and taking captain Richard Phillips hostage, holding him at gunpoint in a lifeboat for five harrowing days.  A Navy SEAL team was eventually able to free Phillips, killing three pirates and capturing a fourth in the process. 

This time around, when the sea-thugs approached the ship and fired on it, they were met with return gunfire from the ship's security detail, and were repelled in their attack. 

While the shipping industry has yet to endorse the use of armed security, as the number of violent attacks continues to increase, a few ship owners and operators have chosen common sense and a right to self-defense over appeasement and political correctness by hiring their own armed security personnel. 

Piracy off the Somali coast continues to rise, with the pirates seeming to become more sophisticated and bold with every passing day.  And, unfortunately, the pirates' success and boldness are bolstered by well-meaning but futile attempts to "negotiate" with them.  On Tuesday, pirates released 36 crewmembers from a Spanish tuna trawler after holding them hostage for more than six weeks. The pirates reportedly received a $3.3 million ransom. 

"Somali pirates understand one thing and only one thing, and that's force," said Captain Joseph Murphy, a maritime security professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and the father of a sailor who was on the Maersk Alabama during the first pirate attack in April.  "They analyze risk very carefully, and when the risk is too high they are going to step back.  They are not going to jeopardize themselves." 

Vice Admiral Bill Gortney of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command said in a statement that the Maersk Alabama had followed the maritime industry's "best practices" by having a security team on board the ship.  "This is a great example of how merchant mariners can take proactive action to prevent being attacked and why we recommend that ships follow industry best practices if they're in high-risk areas," said Gortney. 

However, when it comes to armed self-defense on the high seas, not all agree.  Roger Middleton, a piracy expert at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said the international maritime community was still "solidly against" armed guards aboard vessels at sea, but that American ships have taken a different line than the rest of the international community. 

"Shipping companies are still pretty much overwhelmingly opposed to the idea of armed guards," Middleton said.  "Lots of private security companies employ people who don't have maritime experience. Also, there's the idea that it's the responsibility of states and navies to provide security.  I would think it's a step backward if we start privatizing security of the shipping trade." 

Clearly, merchant ships in known hostile waters need guns to fight pirates and repel their attacks.  No general would think to send troops into a combat zone unarmed.  In a hostile environment, unarmed ships, like unarmed people, are vulnerable.  You know that, and so do the pirates.  Criminals and predators of all types prefer an easy target. 

The parallel between criminal and victim on the sea, or in your community is obvious.  It is not practical to depend on the U.S. Navy to protect all merchant ships, in every circumstance, any more than it is practical to rely on the police to protect you, your home, and your family 24 hours a day.  Navy ships and local police cannot be everywhere all of the time, and they generally arrive at "the scene of the crime" after the crime has already taken place. 

It is far better to afford merchant ships and law-abiding citizens the opportunity to defend themselves.  The best way to eliminate crime is to eliminate criminals, and to respect the innate right of self-defense.
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