Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.
--Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
The present economic crisis has placed under grave threat a good many occupations—hedge fund manager, condominium developer, print journalist—which to future ears may sound as mystifying as the pure finders, bone grubbers, or scriveners of centuries past. But one of the few growth industries of the current downturn has emerged, if not from the pages of history, then at least from the mists of popular fantasy. 2008 was a fine year to be a pirate—an actual pirate—much to the dismay of the maritime shipping trade, which carries 90 percent of world commerce. Pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa tripled last year, as Somalis in wooden dhows stalked the shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden, through which passes twenty thousand merchant ships annually and 7 percent of global oil supply. Armed with little more than modified ladders, Kalashnikovs, and an utter absence of fear, Somali pirates attacked at least a hundred ships and succeeded in capturing at least forty. After protracted negotiations, they managed to squeeze from ship owners around the world as much as $150 million in ransom, a particularly colossal sum in a failed state where per capita GDP is $600.
Piracy has existed off the Horn of Africa for millennia, but last year’s attacks were more coordinated, numerous, and brazen than any previously recorded. In September, pirates hijacked a Ukrainian freighter carrying, among other prizes, thirty-three secondhand Soviet tanks. In November, 450 miles off the Kenyan coast, nine men on a twenty-four-foot skiff captured the Sirius Star, a Chrysler Building-sized supertanker carrying $100 million in Saudi crude to the United States. By the end of the year, a dozen ships were still being held for ransom, along with three hundred crewmen, mostly impoverished merchant sailors from the Philippines.
In today’s Somalia, piracy has found extremely fertile soil. In 1991, the authoritarian government of Siad Barre collapsed. Fractured along clan lines and ruled by warlords, its ten million people have been threatened with famine ever since. Life expectancy is forty-nine years, infant mortality is 11 percent, a third of the population survives off of World Food Program aid—the shipments have been frequently interdicted by the pirates, who respond to protests that they are stealing food from the mouths of their fellow Somalis with the claim that they are keeping them out of the hands of the warlords so they can be equitably distributed.
The interference with the shipping trade has become so severe that the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution on October 16, 2008, authorizing states to invade Somali territory in an effort to combat piracy. Naval vessels from at least twenty countries—among them India, Denmark, Germany, France, Iran, and the United States—have been assigned to the near-hopeless task of patrolling Somalia’s roughly eighteen-hundred-mile coastline and the million square miles of ocean around the Horn of Africa. Shipping insurance costs have skyrocketed from $900 to $9,000 to transit the Gulf of Aden, crews are demanding danger pay, and a detour around the Cape of Good Hope can add weeks to a voyage. Merchant ships forbidden by international maritime law to be armed in territorial waters have had to improvise their means of defense. Fire hoses can be aimed at pirate skiffs that attempt to hook ladders against a ship’s rail. Other vessels have installed a non-lethal electric fence around the decks, or even considered smearing their railings with lard. Guards have been hired to stand watch on risky passages, though as a cost-cutting measure some ships have posted inflatable dummies on the rails, a sort of nautical scarecrow. In 2005, a cruise ship fended off attackers with an acoustic cannon that projects a deafening shriek a quarter of a mile. The American mercenary firm Blackwater has offered the escort services of its 183-foot maritime security vessel McArthur, which carries a crew of forty-five men and two attack helicopters. One Filipino crew, it was reported, pelted the boarding pirates with tomatoes.
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