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Barack Obama's presidency

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Somali Pirates v Those of High Finance

By Michael Winship
April 18, 2009

Editor’s Note: There is a back story to the Somali pirates seizing international cargo ships on the Indian Ocean. As usual, things are never as black and white as they appear on the evening news.

In this guest essay, Michael Winship compares those young Somali pirates to the more upscale variety that have plundered the world’s economy:

If you're looking for signs of the Apocalypse - and who isn't? - here's a good one. There's an uptick in ark building.

You heard me. According to The Wall Street Journal, that Bible of the Financially Bilious, Hong Kong's billionaire Kwok brothers are in the final stages of constructing the world's first full-size replica of Noah's Ark - 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high.

"Just the answer," the Journal reports, "for the rising waters threatening the global economy."

Unlike Noah's aquatic zoo, the Kwok version will remain land bound, and its 67 pairs of animals are made of fiberglass, thus eliminating potential headaches arising from husbandry, hygiene and other housekeeping issues at sea.

It also comes equipped with a restaurant and posh, rooftop resort hotel - just the thing to please the discerning plutocrat, for whom a luxury suite is probably the closest they'll ever get to The Rapture.

The Bible says Noah's Ark was made of gopher wood, whatever that is (no one knows for certain, it seems); the Hong Kong replica is concrete reinforced with glass fiber, and is being built to actual size, the Journal says, "in part to distinguish itself from one in the Netherlands that actually floats and boasts real farm animals but is just one fifth the size of the biblical original."

The two vessels are "just the latest additions to a veritable ark armada built around the world by the devout and the merely driven."

The Dutch ark's builder plans to sail his to London, the United States and Australia. Of course, as things currently stand, chances are the boat will be boarded by Somali pirates and held for ransom, so its chicks and ducks and geese better scurry now while the scurrying's good.

Actually, the odds of such an attack happening reportedly are less than one percent per voyage. But the recent assaults on American shipping attempting to deliver food aid to Kenya - some of which is destined for Somalia - and the successful rescue of Captain Richard Phillips last Sunday (killing three pirates in the process) finally have focused this country's attention on the problem.

Bands of Somali pirates are holding at least 19 ships and more than 250 merchant mariners for millions of dollars in ransom.

"These pirates are criminals, they are armed gangs of the sea, and those plotting attacks must be stopped and those carrying them out must be brought to justice," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters Wednesday.

True enough, but it's worth taking a moment to recognize the conditions from which this new breed of pirate arose and to realize that, as Madison University analyst J. Peter Pham told Reuters, "It will require more than just the application of force to uproot piracy from the soil of Somalia."

It's not just because the sea is so great and our boats are so small, comparatively speaking. Some estimate up to a million square miles of ocean are vulnerable and even hundreds of patrolling warships probably wouldn't be enough to do the job. (Right now, according to an official with the U.S. Central Command, there is just a handful of U.S. and non-U.S. ships on pirate patrol in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.)

Nor is it simply because since 1991 Somalia has been in a state of total anarchy. There's more to it.

The seeds of the current piracy were planted around the time of that collapse when a group of vigilante fishermen calling themselves the Volunteer Coast Guard of Somalia started heading out to sea in speedboats, intercepting and levying a "tax" on foreign, mostly Western, ships, some of which were smuggling goods in and out of the country, others of which were busily overfishing coastal waters, depriving nine million starving Somalians of food.

What's more, Ahmediou Ould-Abdallah, the United Nations envoy to Somalia, told Jonathan Hari of the British newspaper The Independent that European ships, taking advantage of the onshore chaos, dumped barrels of nuclear waste offshore.

"There is also lead," he claimed, "and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury - you name it."

Hari reports that after the Christmas 2005 tsunami, hundreds of leaking barrels washed up on shore and more than 300 died from radiation sickness.

"Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to 'dispose' of cheaply," he wrote back on Jan. 5. "When I asked Mr. Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh, 'Nothing. There has been no clean-up, no compensation and no prevention.'"

In the April issue of Vanity Fair, journalist William Langewiesche has a fascinating account of last spring's Somali hijacking of the French cruise ship Le Ponant, which finally ended with the crew's safe return, the payment of a $2.15 million ransom and a French military assault that resulted in the arrest of six alleged pirates.

"One of the ironies at play is that the maritime industry being victimized is itself a standard-bearer for the advantages that exist in a world beyond law and regulation," he writes, referring to a global shipping trade that has dodged the rules through the raw manipulation of flags of convenience and the law of the sea.

They are, Langewiesche says, "...The very same people who for years have made a mockery of the nation-state idea. They know that whatever pirate tolls they pay will always pale in comparison with the taxes that would be imposed if global law and order ever actually prevailed."

No wonder media commentators speak -- without irony -- of the pirates' "business model."

Icelandic fishermen turned to banking and high finance and we know how well that turned out. Somali fisherman turned to piracy.

This global economic calamity has everyone hammering together arks, and despite this week's rescue at sea, so far, it seems, the pirates -- Somali or otherwise -- are the ones still afloat.

Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program “Bill Moyers Journal,” which airs Friday night on PBS.  Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at

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