A Barometer of Order

Monday, October 24th, 2011

William S. Lind sees piracy as a barometer of order:

What is comic about the piracy off Somalia is the inability of the maritime powers, most of whom now have warships on station in the region, to do anything about it.  Their governments wring their hands and say, “Oh, my, whatever shall we do.  Our laws don’t seem to cover piracy, so it seems we must do nothing.”  The warships are left to steam in circles, scream and shout.  The British Foreign Office produced a formal legal opinion warning Royal Navy ships not to capture pirates, on the grounds that the pirates might claim asylum in Britain!  The Foreign Office, it seems, has become an asylum.

On no question is international law more clear or more ancient than on piracy.  Law has recognized pirates as “enemies of all mankind” since the Roman Empire.  They are outlaws whom anyone may kill on sight.  Common law, which used to count for something in Britain, makes hunting down and killing pirates the duty of all maritime powers.  The Royal Navy used to be pretty good at it.  Has it perhaps run out of rope?

Cleaning up Somali piracy should take ten days, two weeks at most.  It’s not hard.  International ships and aircraft hunt down and sink the pirates’ vessels at sea.  (As in the 17th and 18th centuries, there are very few pirate “ships;” most pirates operate from open boats, now as then.)  Any ship taken by pirates is immediately re-taken by some state’s navy or Marines.  Captured pirates are hanged from the nearest yardarm, without trial, as common law allows.  Ports out of which pirates frequently sail, such as Eyl, are bombarded, and any likely pirate craft are destroyed.  This is a script any admiral from the age of sail would know by heart.

Why hasn’t it happened?  Here is where the subject becomes serious.  Piracy is a barometer of two related qualities in the world of states:  the state’s belief in itself and the state system, and international order.  The failure of states to follow ancient law and precedent in dealing with Somali pirates says nothing about the pirates.  But it speaks volumes concerning the weakness of the state, in its own eyes.  So little do the international elites who now rule all but a handful of states – the administrators of Brave New World – believe in the state that they cannot even hang pirates.  They have the souls, not of leaders or governors, but of petty functionaries.  When not even states’ elites believe in the state anymore, why should anyone else?  Piracy not suppressed represents history lifting its leg on the whole state system.

Similarly, piracy is a barometer of order.  It has been so since Roman times.  When order weakens, pirates flourish.  When order returns, pirates are hunted down and hanged.  The piracy barometer tells us order is vanishing fast.


  1. Alrenous says:

    It’s actually worse than that. As Lind mentions, the pirates use boats. They could be sunk with small arms. Similarly, you can safely assume they’re cowards who’ll run from anyone who will shoot back, and reports back that up. (Frankly, they’d be stupid not to.)

    States are not only failing to police the waters; they’re actively preventing the merchant ships from defending themselves.

    That said, I approve of Somali piracy, because (a) it beats having a Somali government, and (b) anyone who sails around the horn without being willing to defend themselves deserves what they get.

  2. Bruce Charlton says:

    Thanks for the link.

  3. BJ says:

    If the pirates were operating out of Russia or Iran, would we have any problem ruthlessly supressing them? would Britain tolerate British pirates? Come on, common sense. The state is very confident in exercizing its prerogatives against lowly citizens and taxpayers, productive lawbiding citizens, just not lawless Somalis — or illegal aliens, for that matter.

    Look at US diplomatic support for the storming of a peaceful vessel in international waters by Israel.

  4. BJ says:

    Also, if any of the sea-steading folks set up an ocean colony miles out in international waters, I’m sure the US government would crush it and allow no escape from USG’s sovereignty. We just can’t use force against underprivilged inner-city pirates or undocumented working ones. Enforcing an embargo on the stateless helots or untouchables of Gaza or whichever by gunning down a peaceful vessel is also okay. So you need a better analysis than an broadly unconfident state. The state has no problem contracting industrial prisons in the US to house nonviolent offenders, which private prisons also lobby law enforcement…

    Just a few thoughts.

  5. Bruce Charlton says:

    You think that you have a realistic assessment of how bad things are, you think that you are a pessimist – then you see something like this, and then you realize that — compared with what is actually happening — you are living in a deluded Disneyland of the sunniest dewy-eyed optimism.

    When piracy is relabeled a human rights issue then relabeling mass starvation, epidemic and violence as vibrant democracy is facile.

    We might well be some way into the actual collapse already. Would we even know about it unless it affected us specifically? (Answer: no.) And if it did affect us, would anyone believe us? (Answer: no. It would be re-framed.)

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