After reading about a series of pirate attacks last year—back then an almost laughably bizarre occurrence—I became interested in the concept of modern piracy, something I, like many average citizens, was unaware still went on. I picked up a copy of John Burnett’s Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas after hearing him talk on NPR, but didn’t get far into it.
Recent events revived my interest, and I made some headway in the book this weekend. It turns out that piracy has been a major problem for ships in third-world areas, which is problematic since many major international shipping lanes progress right through these areas. No ship is immune, from small sailboats to “VLCCs”: Very Large Crude Carriers, commercial oil tankers rivaling our military’s biggest ships in size. As we learned with the recent hostage situation, pirates tend to be destitute teenagers from the poverty-stricken nations who have little to lose and everything to gain.
This afternoon, I read an interesting observation: some private ships, including cruise ships, are known to employ “heavies,” gun-toting mercenaries, to protect the ship and those onboard. Guns are otherwise uncommon: there are many thorny legal issues, including the need to declare them to customs when docking in a foreign port, at which point they’re seized until you leave again; the fact that pulling a gun on pirates, unless you’re a well-trained marksman, is likely to get you shot; and the fact that, on many of the oil tankers, a single stray round could blow the whole ship up.
So imagine my surprise when I checked out Google News, and saw that an Italian cruise liner off the coast of Somalia actually used its heavies to deter pirates. Besides idle fascination n the escalating pirate wars, I think this is a good thing: if pirates are becoming brazen enough to fire on cruise ships, there’s a much more pressing need for the international community to aggressively put an end to piracy. Piracy is no longer an obscure issue affecting an incredibly small number of commercial ships, but something threatening anyone on a boat in international waters, and the latest escalation is likely to cause an even greater escalation in piracy defenses.