Saturday, May 9, 2009

Jefferson and the Somali pirates

I was reading this very interesting post Ranking the Founding Presidents from Powell History Recommends. While reading about Thomas Jefferson's (ranked 2nd) Powell mentions that "Jefferson continued to steer the new nation with its self-interest as his guiding star as its third president and his most notable accomplishment in that area was his leadership in the war against the Barbary Pirates." The mention of pirates immediately piqued my curiosity and I did a google search on Barbary pirates and I found a recent story on New York Times called Lessons From the Barbary Pirate Wars.

The article mentions some striking similarities with Somali pirates like: "how those brigands, like today’s Somalis, usually kept their hostages alive. They only hanged captives from giant hooks or carved them into little pieces if they resisted. The Barbary pirates used small wooden boats, often powered by slaves chained to the oars, to attack larger European ships." Thomas Jefferson's description is very striking: "When they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth, which usually struck such terror in the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.”

In another article "Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates" Christopher Hitchens says:
Perhaps above all, though, the Barbary Wars gave Americans an inkling of the fact that they were, and always would be, bound up with global affairs. Providence might have seemed to grant them a haven guarded by two oceans, but if they wanted to be anything more than the Chile of North America—a long littoral ribbon caught between the mountains and the sea—they would have to prepare for a maritime struggle as well as a campaign to redeem the unexplored landmass to their west. The U.S. Navy’s Mediterranean squadron has, in one form or another, been on patrol ever since.

And then, finally, there is principle. It would be simplistic to say that something innate in America made it incompatible with slavery and tyranny. But would it be too much to claim that many Americans saw a radical incompatibility between the Barbary system and their own? And is it not pleasant when the interests of free trade and human emancipation can coincide? I would close with a few staves of Kipling:

It is wrong to put temptation in the pathof any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say:—“We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!”

It may be fortunate that the United States had to pass this test, and imbibe this lesson, so early in its life as a nation.

The solution to this problem according to Ayn Rand Center in it's article "How to End Piracy in the High Seas" is:

“What we need--in response to piracy as well as other foreign threats--is an across-the-board reversal in U.S. policy. When, for example, it became clear more than a year ago that the waters off the coast of Somalia are a playground for pirates, the minimum that Washington should have done was to lay down an ultimatum to the pirates to leave Americans alone or else--and lived up to it.

The substance of that warning: if any American vessel is captured by pirates, we will use military force to destroy every last pirate base in Somalia. When such a threat of retaliation is made fully credible, it can be sufficient to deter would-be aggressors. If any dare test us, then we must apologetically respond with force."

Some other sources of information:
America and the Barbary Pirates: An International Battle Against an Unconventional Foe
Terrorism In Early America