[Peter Leeson, guest-blogging, May 21, 2009 at 8:38am] Trackbacks
Somali Pirates: Avengers of Social Justice?

An increasingly common claim to hear is that the Somali pirates are just attempting to right the wrongs of greedy multinationals and others who, since Somalia's government collapsed in 1991, have taken advantage of the country's statelessness to dump toxic waste and exploit the resources in its coastal waters.

Somehow, capturing vulnerable commercial vessels traveling through Somalia's water lanes, holding their crews hostage for weeks at a time, and then ransoming them for money is supposed to punish(?) or deter(?) this behavior. Recognition of the Somali pirates' socially conscious motivations isn't meant to justify their actions, it's said--merely to help us better understand what causes people to turn to piracy in the first place, presumably so that we can prevent it.

I've been asked several times what I think of this claim. My answer: I don't buy it.

Like their 18th-century predecessors, the Somali pirates are businessmen. As I think their basic MO--capture ships; hold sailors hostage; ransom for wads of cash; buy BMW--pretty clearly evidences, they're in it for the money. And as far as I know, the pirates haven't donated any of the estimated $30 million+ they managed to steal last year to Greenpeace or environmental organizations for the cleanup of their polluted coastal waters.

So where does the image of Somali pirates as avengers of social justice come from?

From Somali pirates, of course. The Somali pirates see a benefit of presenting themselves this way. And with good reason. Their claim has been repeated enough in popular media to lead at least some to start asking whether it might be true. Transforming anger into sympathy isn't a bad strategy for Somali sea dogs.

If the idea of a pirate PR scheme sounds far fetched to you, consider its historical precedent. As I discuss in The Invisible Hook, early 18th-century pirates were also keenly aware of their public persona and worked diligently to manipulate this image to their benefit.

For example, one of the problems early 18th-century pirates confronted in attempting to maximize profit "on the account" was recalcitrant captives who hid, and sometimes even destroyed, booty to prevent their pirate captors from getting a hold of it. Obviously, loot that pirate captives successfully hid or destroyed was loot that couldn't contribute to pirates' revenue. To prevent this behavior, pirates sought to establish a reputation as "men on the edge"--men who, if resisted in these or other ways, would launch into a torturous frenzy.

Pirates worked on developing this reputation in several ways. One was by inflicting barbarous punishments on sailors who didn't immediately deliver up everything they had that the pirates wanted. I won't go into detail about what these tortures here . . . Suffice it to say, none was as kind or as quick as "walking the plank."

Another way pirates cultivated their image as "hair triggers" was by displaying and proclaiming "madness," fearlessness of death, hatred of God, etc., in front of unwitting captives who were led to believe that their captors might really be from hell, as some pirates intimated they were.

Word of mouth helped spread and institutionalize pirates' resulting reputation. But so did the early 18th-century media--newspapers that recounted captives' accounts of piratical claims and deeds that they heard and observed while under their captors' control. Since pirates were aware of such reporting, they also were aware that they could spin their public image to their advantage by acting out appropriately in front of the legitimate persons they interacted with. So, this is exactly what they did.

This strategy proved at least partly effective. In fact, to this day, popular perceptions of 18th-century pirates remain very much wedded to, and in important ways reflect, the public image pirates sought to project among their contemporaries as a means of facilitating compliance with their demands for the purpose of enhancing profit.

It remains to be seen what, if any, substantive effect the Somali pirates' PR campaign--a campaign that aims to present them to the world as sea-borne Captain Planets--will have. This depends on how well such spin succeeds in duping those susceptible to the pirates' message. But the early signs look positive for Somali pirates. Three of my last three interviewers asked me about the Somali pirate social justice angle, which means that, at a minimum, the pirates' message is getting out there.