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BC's Tales of the Pacific | Maritime piracy is back with a vengeance

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OFTEN, when I bring up the subject of piracy, someone makes a clever remark about Captain Jack Sparrow and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. But piracy is alive and well in the modern world. Think back about 10 years when the Horn of Africa and the waters around Somalia were as dangerous a place as any in the world.

That hot spot has quieted down in recent years, although we still receive reports of the occasional hijacking. Currently, the most active waters for piracy are the Guinea coast of Africa, near Nigeria, and the waterways of Indonesia, just on the other side of the Philippines from Saipan.

It is not just that piracy is on the rise, it is out of control. The current year is on pace to have the most acts of piracy in history, both in those two locations and for the entire world. What is going on?

There are a few factors feeding modern piracy, none of which are new. Typically, acts of piracy increase when economic times are tough. When jobs are scarce, people are hungry and the governments do not seem to be solving the problems, people take matters into their own hands. In that sense, piracy can be seen as another form of street crime.

However, there are major differences between a criminal taking your wallet and a group of pirates on a speed boat boarding a container ship at sea. Piracy requires a level of organization and sophistication far beyond street thugs. It also requires a financial base. Modern pirates use the internet and advanced tracking systems to monitor ship activity in order to choose their prey. Radar and communications equipment direct the attack groups to intercept ships using assault rifles and rocket launchers. A mother ship will lurk in a hot spot and launch multiple small, fast boats in a coordinated attack. So, the very technology that makes the modern shipping industry possible also enables criminals to commit crimes against that industry.

In a way, then, it all comes down to what crime has always been about: motive and means. If you think back to detective stories you read, they tried to establish who had a motive to commit the murder and who had the means. That was why they spent so much time talking about alibis. “Sure, I wanted to kill the old man.” Motive. “Yes, I was in the house when he was killed.” Means.

How do we stop piracy? In one sense, we can’t. As long as there are valuable things to be had, someone will try to take them. However, we can reduce the motive and means to commit this type of crime. One way is preventative and the other is responsive.

On the preventive side, statistics show that piracy goes down as economies grow and people prosper. That works to eliminate motive. To eliminate the means, shippers need to take steps to make vessels more resistant to attack. Defensive measures such as flares, water cannons and even security personnel make a ship less of a target.

On the responsive side, governments can take stronger action to hunt down pirate bands and hold them accountable, both in terms of the law and in terms of force. It worked in Somalia. As long as companies pay huge ransoms for the safe return of their ships, cargo and crew, piracy will remain lucrative. Take away the payday and you take away the incentive.

There is also a perception problem. Many people view pirates as romantic anti-establishment figures who commit crimes against giant multinational corporations, as if they are some brand of modern-day Robin Hood. This is a false narrative and needs to change.

It does us no good for piracy to run riot in the western Pacific. We have enough on our plate without contending with this modern plague.


BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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