The Somali pirates have really outdone themselves this time. Last Saturday night, while you were out late partying, these guys were hard at work hijacking a supertanker carrying $100 million worth of crude oil. I congratulate them on their success! I know I can’t be the only Tech student out there who reacts instinctively with cheer every time I hear that pirates have captured another vessel stacked with Russian tanks or filled with Saudi crude oil.
For the past few years I have followed stories of the pirates and their conquests on the high seas. I can’t say I agree with everything they’ve done. There have been deaths — a Russian ship captain suffered a heart attack while having his ship hijacked, and a Taiwanese fisher was apparently murdered while in captivity. I regret these deaths, but rest assured death-by-pirate is far less frequent in this world than death-by-smartbomb made possible by you and me every time we pay our taxes to the U.S. Treasury. All things considered, I think these pirates have shown surprising restraint in dealing with us westerners when we consider the history of Somalia.
The exploitation of people of Somalia has been continual for centuries. The Arabs became interested in Somalia as a source for human capital (slaves), during the 1700’s. They plundered until the Europeans arrived in 1880’s and worked out deals with the local Sultans, giving them a piece of the action.
The Europeans brought with them a series of conflicts and wars which pitted tribe against tribe, weakening the native population and making them dependent on imported arms — the same methods employed by colonial powers to control populations across the globe. The plundering didn’t end with colonialism; human trafficking of Somalis continues to this day. With all this in mind, I think that if these pirates were Scottish or if William Wallace was among them, there’d be a higher body count.
Their story is inspirational to me because it illustrates the triumph of the power of the immutable human spirit over an emerging global military-industrial empire/police state/house of cards. These pirates have risen from the ashes of a nation plagued by hundreds of years of foreign intervention to realize that they, as free individuals, hold the true power in this realm. One Somalia analyst said it best: “The latest attack looks like a deliberate two fingers from some very bright Somalis. Anyone who describes them as a bunch of camel herders needs to think again.”
These pirates are no angels, but they have acted on their natural instincts to achieve a better life for themselves despite the odds being stacked against them. In my mind, it is this instinct and the action which propel us forward as a species. When we yield our power to control exerted by external forces and rely on entities other than ourselves for survival, we may fail as individuals, but the species marches on because of real men like these pirates. The most recent story includes evidence of this truth as well.
The supertanker was owned (not anymore) and operated by Saudi Aramco, a petroleum behemoth owned by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In a prime example of unchecked corporate greed and non-self-reliance, Saudi Aramco failed to provide for the security of the tanker in any way. Since it was registered in Liberia to cut costs, the supertanker could not have been legally rescued by naval forces as it steamed back to port in Somalia. Saudi Aramco had also failed to equip the vessel with any weaponry or security personnel. Security teams are offered on a contract basis by several firms for costs minimal compared to the ransom being demanded by the pirates. What inspires this level of irresponsibility? Perhaps it is expectation of the protection by government.
The crew of the ship, who are now being held hostage, also share in the blame. Before the hijackers took control of the tanker, it had deviated (most likely taking a shortcut to save time or cut costs) from the normal shipping channels which are more heavily patrolled. When approached by pirates, the crew readily surrendered the ship and agreed to being held hostage.
Granted, these men were probably not expecting pirates to attack them, but who surrenders a supertanker and one’s freedom to a few armed men in rubber rafts without a fight? What kind of captain doesn’t have a few RPG’s on board when sailing through pirate-infested waters? These men were likely prohibited by corporations and governments who decried that no weapons be on board the tanker. This unfortunately makes them an excellent example of how we lose when we yield to external controls over our lives.
For now I encourage everyone to meditate on the eventual release of the hostages and return of the oil to the global economy without further deaths, which can probably only be accomplished by having the ransom payed as demanded. E-mail Saudi Aramco public relations at firstname.lastname@example.org and encourage them. If this can be achieved, someone just has to have a pirate-themed party and invite me to it.
Matthew Davidson is a graduate student in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering.