Or, “enemy of humankind”. That’s how Marcus Tullius Cicero characterized the pirates of his day. Pirates, buccaneers, corsairs, freebooters, bajak. The so-called “Golden Age” of piracy in American waters and the Caribbean extended from roughly 1690 to 1730. During the Golden Age dozens, scores, or even hundreds of pirate ships were in operation, disrupting mercantile traffic, murdering, raping, kidnapping, robbing and otherwise creating mayhem. Pirates besieged or sacked the cities and towns of
- Charleston, South Carolina
- Maracaibo, Venezuela
- Puerto Principe (now Camagüey), Cuba
- Portobello, Panama
- Gibraltar, Venezuela
and many others, in some cases holding whole populations for ransom.
Although the U. S. Coast Guard has largely eliminated piracy in American waters and the Caribbean, it’s by no means extinct: losses due to piracy account for something like $15 billion per year, especially off the Somali coast and in the vicinity of Singapore and the Straits of Malacca. Piracy is the broadest exception to the principle that a ship on the high seas is subject to the protection of, and jurisdiction of, her flag state.
I’ve read libertarian and Marxist apologies for piracy but, frankly, I think these are romantic fancies. Piracy becoming a significant problem seems to follow a pattern.
The imperial powers of the day (England, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands) had already staked their claims to
various parts of the globe but had not extended their power, their law, to their new colonies. While there were contending states there was also an anarchic vacuum.
One of the ways that the contending states extended their powers was by contracting it out: they issued letters of marque and reprisal to private captains to harass the ships and outposts of opposing states, in some cases actually paying such contractors. State support was a critical component in making piracy economically viable.
As with anything else when you subsidize piracy, you get more of it and, when the War of Spanish Succession ended, there was a large pool of privateers who simply continued what they had been doing without official sanction.
That’s the environment in which piracy flourished: absence of the power of the state to oppose it, states supporting non-state actors to promote their own objectives, a pool of people with the required skills and interests.
Although piracy was clearly a matter of law enforcement putting it down was beyond the powers of local constabularies: just as creating the conditions under which piracy flourished required the involvement of central governments so did putting piracy down. There were three key factors which accomplished this.
First, the laws of the sea were changed to make piracy easier to prosecute. Second, armies and navies eliminated pirate bases and actively pursued pirates. Finally, states extended their own power sufficiently that they no longer supported non-state actors.
We’re going to need to revise our laws to make terrorism easier to prosecute. It may, indeed, be true that the practices of the Bush Administration have made it difficult to prosecute terrorists for their crimes. I simply don’t know. But I do know that it hasn’t only been hard here: it’s been difficult in the United Kingdom and in Germany. There have been very, very few successful prosecutions for terrorism since the attacks of five years ago.
We’re also going to have to eliminate terrorist bases using military force as required. We made a start at this in Afghanistan but it’s only a start (I differ from many in that I’m relatively uninterested in spreading democracy or nation-building). There are lots of other terrorist bases that need to be identified and closed down.
Finally, states must be discouraged from sponsoring terrorism. That includes us. That will require a combination of law, political reform, vigorous prosecution and, yes, military action. Frankly, I’m not sure we’re up to it.
UPDATE: Synchronicity. Mark Thoma of Economist’s View quotes in full an article from the New York Times on Rome’s response to piracy more than 2,000 years ago.