If I'm to believe the mainstream press and pundits (most disappointingly, Rachel Maddow,) there are bands of inexplicably evil men sailing around the Horn of Africa, pillaging ships and terrorizing sailors simply because they are pirates. And pirates are evil. End of story.
Except, that's a rather shallow interpretation of what's happening in the Somalian waters. Acts of piracy are acts of desperation, and not the acts of evil men. Of course, terrorizing civilians is never acceptable, though I would like to point out my own government is guilty of crimes against humanity that far exceed any acts of Somalian piracy.
In his excellent article, Johann Hari writes of a fascinating exchange between Alexander the Great and a pirate. The pirate was captured and brought before Alexander.
Hari went into further detail about Somalian pirates when I interviewed him for my show Citizen Radio. During the interview, he explained that Somalian pirates are actually poor fishermen. It was only after Somalian waters were poisoned by western nations, and the livelihoods of Somalian fisherman were destroyed, that civilians turned to acts of piracy as means of survival.
[Alexander] demanded to know "what he meant by keeping possession of the sea." The pirate smiled, and responded: "What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you, who do it with a great fleet, are called emperor." Once again, our great imperial fleets sail in today - but who is the robber?
Pundits (even our beloved Progressive pundits) adore simplicity, and the pirate coverage off the coast of Somalia presented to them an orgasmic, cartoonish stand-off between "noble seamen," and "evil pirates."
What happened in Somalia is that in 1991, the Somalian government collapsed and the country imploded. Two processes began in different parts of Somalia; bearing in mind it has a 3000 km coastline. A European shipping fleet, mostly Spanish, Italian and some British came along and basically started industrially fishing Somalian fish, which is one of the main sources of food in a starving country. Suddenly these tiny little fishermen with nets were being out fished by these industrial trawlers and the fish started just disappearing, so there was a massive increase in hunger in Somalia.
In another part of Somalia, industrial waste from Europe begun to being dumped just off the coast, because it's expensive to get rid of waste in Europe [whilst] it costs nothing to take it in a boat and dump it outside Somalia. The most incredible thing that was dumped was literally nuclear waste. So after the tsunami, barrels of all sorts of random shit started to wash up on the coast of Somalia, including nuclear waste that we now know [as a result] radiation sickness killed around 300 people but no ones bothering to count or check. That's [what] the UN special envoys estimate to me was, 300 died, could be far more, no one's looking, cleaning or doing anything.
Imagine if this happened in Florida, imagine if the government of Florida didn't have any resources and suddenly Italians came, stole all the fish and everyone was going bust in Florida, and they started dumping nuclear waste. People of Florida would be calling for the nuking of Italy.
The Somalians with very limited resources sent what they called the 'National Volunteer Coast Guard' to try and stop these people, and the people we call pirates call themselves the coast guard. This is not that implausible when you bear in mind the context. It's absolutely true that the some pirates have committed unacceptable acts, I don't believe it's ever right to take a hostage, [but] they haven't killed anyone, harmed anyone, but they have taken hostages. That's not right, they do it to get money but they then in some cases give it back to [their] communities, which have been desecrated in several instances. So it's a good example of how something is presented as mindless insanity when actually it's actually completely different.
The truth is more complicated than that.
Somalians live in a shockingly volatile environment complete with stark poverty and religious fundamentalism. Their environment has been poisoned by the west, their source of food and income destroyed, and now desperate men are resorting to desperate acts.
To stress again: it's never acceptable to harm civilians, and hostage-taking is never a valid means of negotiation. Still, when considering the stress placed upon Somalia's civilians, it's actually pretty surprising that there hasn't been more violence, and that most nautical conflicts with pirates have been resolved peacefully. (Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, even admitted that "in most of these cases to date, [the] crews have ultimately been released unharmed.")
It's important not to demonize Somalians, even the Somalian pirates. When we demonize our enemies, they become less than human, and it becomes easy to apply such blanket rhetoric as "terrorists." Demonization (particularly by our media) allows hawkish figures an excuse to say that Somalia "must be invaded," that poor fisherman AKA pirates "must be destroyed," and that the "axis of evil" has a new peg.
Johann Hari's official website: http://www.johannhari.com/