By Frank Wessling
Easter Sunday night, three rifle shots, three dead young men and one live, free American. We had a feel-good ending to the pirate story that had begun during Holy Week in the ocean off Somalia on the east coast Horn of Africa.
Richard Phillips, captain of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, was safe and unharmed. U.S. Navy sharpshooters had frustrated an attempt to hold Phillips for ransom. There was cheering and congratulations and thankful prayer on our side. The brave ship captain, who had offered himself as a hostage so his crew would be left unharmed, was hailed as a hero — legitimately so.
On the other side, the desperate Somali men and boys attacking ships vowed to make the United States a special target of their piracy and hostage-taking. There could be a mother or two or three in mourning, also.
Somalia is a dangerous, nearly lawless place. Piracy is just one more way of getting by. But, like a gang that takes over a neighborhood and demands not only a cut of its business profits but money from visitors, the pirates need to be stopped. Pushing outlaw behavior beyond their neighborhood brings in the rest of the world. Whether we like it or not, the question of means is dumped in our laps: How should this menace be handled?
If the Maersk Alabama and Phillips model is our standard, the U.S. is behaving in a measured, rational way. We used patience. We used carefully targeted rifle shots rather than big guns or bombs. And President Obama is pushing to treat the entire problem as one of law enforcement.
Military personnel, tools and expertise may be needed, but what we have here is a policing issue in a messy world not yet well enough organized under the rule of law.
This will not satisfy the part of us that wants to smash anyone threatening our safety, but it offers a wiser way toward long-term peace. Somalia may be the world’s worst basket case, its poor people caught in a culture dominated by thugs with no regard for the common good. It doesn’t need more violence and its pirates probably can’t be deterred by force or threats of force.
They need to meet and feel the impact of an alternative world where human dignity, the rule of law and a guiding desire for the common good are respected. They need to see that our strength isn’t just found in bigger guns and faster ships, but in the orderly freedom to think and move and do that fuels our creativity.
How will that happen? A start is being made by bringing to court the one pirate captured from the Maersk Alabama case. He needs to be treated as a violator of international law, not a threat to national security. A few other nations affected by the recent outbreak of piracy are taking the same route. Then we need persistent effort to strengthen or reform the structures of international cooperation and mutual assistance. The United Nations as an institution may be impotent in its present form but the United Nations idea needs to be revived and reshaped for the 21st-century world.
This kind of work won’t make instant popular heroes like Richard Phillips and the sharpshooters who ended his ordeal. The long-term heroes will be members of the diplomatic corps, development specialists who spread their expertise for the benefit of peoples in need everywhere and nongovernmental groups dedicated to human flourishing regardless of political borders, including the work of churches.
We want that kind of activity to dominate the history written about our time, not more piracy stories.