Monday, May 4, 2009

Coyotes, pirates and the Constitution

From the 04 May 2009: Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

The Walt Disney Effect has been out in full force lately.

Thanks to the plethora of movies that show animals having anthropomorphic tendencies – that is, they talk and act like humans – people tend to think even the wildest of beasts are cute and cuddly and just dying to be friendly with Mankind. The thing is, they’re not. As we’ve seen with the recent close encounters with foxes and coyotes (some of which were purposeful thanks to the Effect), wild animals are, well, wild and they’ll attack. They really don’t like us at all.

That same dangerous Walt Disney Effect can be seen on the Seven Seas. Over the past decade or so piracy has become extremely popular in the waters off the Somali and Nigerian coasts. This increase in nautical crime has been reported in the press throughout the world but indifference has been cast its way (especially in the United States) because our society is guilty of giving these animals some anthropomorphic traits of their own. Hollywood has always granted pirates a respectable air and many of the on-screen scoundrels – like Walt Disney’s Jack Sparrow, for one – are downright likeable. Reality is anything but. Much like the aforementioned wild canines, they are bloodthirsty curs who you would not want to count as your friends. They are carnivores of the open seas and they should be treated as such.

But, they haven’t been. Very few Americans raised an eyebrow about piracy until one of their own, Captain Richard Phillips, was captured by and subsequently rescued from a band of Somali water thugs. Because of the crisis finally hitting home, we’ve all come to the conclusion that pirates are a real threat.

So, what do we do about it? How do we prevent future attacks? How do we ensure that we never see a hostage situation again? How do we guarantee that no innocent mariners die?

We could follow the same tactic that was used on the troublesome urban coyote and its friends. It was killed by the police and efforts are in place to institute a nuisance control plan that will rid the area of others.

Yes, I’ve just called for the spilling of pirate blood…if not the capture of the animals.

It doesn’t make sense, though, to put naval fleets into waters the world over. We didn’t put a policeman or game control officer at every corner to catch the coyote. It’s impractical, it’s costly and, above all, it’s not the best thing for community relations. Just as a good many citizens feel threatened by a heightened police presence in their neighborhood, so do other countries when they see increased military activity in their neighboring waters. The US and Russia have both contributed naval craft to policing the seas, much to the chagrin of others.

It makes the most sense to empower the private craft to protect themselves. Not only is it the most cost-effective and diplomatically-friendly method, but it’s the one most befitting the situation. These craft are the ones coming into contact with the pirates and they are the ones who must fight for survival. Survival is a natural right and, believe it or not, having armed sailors is our Constitutional right.

It’s a little-known fact that the US Constitution allows Congress to essentially deputize private individuals to protect American interests on international waters. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution says, “The Congress shall have power… To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water…” It is those letters, contracts of sort, which would authorize a seafarer to take the law into his own hands and engage the pirates in gun play when threatened. Without such legal authorization, the mariner – who was trying to protect the safety of crew and cargo – could theoretically be looked at as a pirate under international law.

Letters of marque and reprisal are long overdue. They have been used only once since the War of 1812 (by the submarine hunter the Resolute during World War II). It’s a little dumbfounding that shippers haven’t been granted their right sooner. Most of these boats have navigated into pirate-laden waters without the weaponry necessary to protect themselves. That means that every minute of every day is a gamble for them. If Congress signed-off on their ability to act in a defensive/offensive manner the gamble would be gone. The first cargo ship that stops a potential takeover by blasting at pirate craft with 7.62 mm machine guns and short range explosives will make a statement that will resonate throughout the African shores: Private boats will no longer be easy prey of those animals.

That’s how you stop piracy. Sometimes, a bullet is the only way to handle a pest.

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