Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk-Alabama, combines discipline and courage with a cool and calculating mind. Likewise the three U.S. Navy SEAL snipers who -- firing from a destroyer's fantail in rolling seas -- killed the three Somali pirates who attacked Phillips' ship, held him hostage and were prepared to murder him.
This dramatic American operation ends with three dead thief-kidnappers (criminals employing terror as a business tactic) and a freed American hostage. We are fortunate. Skill, courage, experience, vastly superior military forces and fortunate circumstances produce a satisfactory denouement -- at least satisfactory for the sensible who know pirates and, yes, their close kin, terrorists, threaten peace, economic development and the fundamental concepts of international order.
Dead pirates and a politically rewarded American president, however, aren't the usual outcomes when pirates perpetrate violent hijackings in the Gulf of Aden and around the globe in seas and straits bordering weak, corrupt and failing states. The more common result: Pirate syndicates receive millions in ransom for crews and ships and literally get away with murder. Direct action to free hostages and arrest pirates -- to rescue the innocent and impose a basic rule of law -- can spill innocent blood. Recently, a French hostage was killed when French commandos stormed a yacht captured by Somali pirates.
The Maersk-Alabama incident does reinforce several old lessons whose demonstration ought to inform crews threading pirate-infested sea lanes. For example, crews trained to resist pirate attacks -- even unarmed crews -- can sometimes thwart pirate raids and buy time for armed response by naval forces. Precise lethal force, in this instance guided by U.S. Navy air and sea sensors and provided by SEAL sharpshooters, can save lives and demonstrate a sane and sensible will to resist criminal terror, and is a necessary tool in combating armed men who are desperately invested in their violent enterprise.
These lessons make the case for sea marshal programs that place armed security teams on ships in threatened areas.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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