There aren’t many Americans who have never heard those words, which come from the United States Marine Corps Hymn. The words refer to the heroic role of the Marines in putting an end to pillaging and piracy by the Barbary pirates who in the early 1800s plied their nefarious trade in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. England and other countries paid tribute to the Barbary pirates in return for the safe passage of their ships. The American motto, however, was "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!" Instead of sending tribute, we sent the Marines.
For several years now, pirates off the shore of Somalia have been engaged in the same kind of criminal enterprise, hijacking ships in the Indian Ocean, many of them oil tankers and cargo ships going to or coming from the Gulf oil region. As they round the Horn of Africa, they are attacked by Somalia militia or rebels operating from a lawless country without a functioning government.
The hijacked ships, their crews and cargo are then held hostage until the companies owning the ships have paid ransom, running into millions of dollars. The money is used in part to upgrade the pirates’ weaponry and to acquire ships that are employed in the boarding of cargo ships and oil tankers and the taking of the hostages. I noticed for months that there were no news reports on the activities of the pirates and recently, I asked the question on my Friday night radio call-in show (heard all across the U.S. on Bloomberg Radio, as well as Sirius radio at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time), whatever happened to the pirates? Serendipitously, on September 10th, The New York Times reported, “Nairobi, Kenya – In a predawn raid with helicopters hovering nearby, 24 American Marines scaled aboard a hijacked ship in the Gulf of Aden on Thursday, arrested the nine pirates on board and freed the ship – all without firing a shot, the American military said.”
The article continued, “Last year, Navy Seal snipers killed three pirates who were holding an American cargo ship captain in a lifeboat, after he had offered himself as a hostage in exchange for the safety of his crew.”
However, the appalling news, as reported in the article, is this: “Despite the intense international naval presence in the region, the pirates are on track to have another banner year with more than 30 ships hijacked so far in 2010 and tens of millions of dollars in ransoms.”
So I was right. There has been a media blackout on this story. I, an avid newspaper reader, had not seen any reports on most of these ship and hostage takings. What appears to have been going on was an example of businesses worldwide concluding it was cheaper to pay the ransoms than to wait for their countries to blow the pirates out of the water in their marauding ships at sea or in their refuges on the Somali coast. But apparently, not so in the case of the U.S. and its Marines, who have been and continue to do what Marines do best: protect Americans under the most difficult and dangerous conditions. God bless them.
But what have the U.S. and other countries been doing with the captured pirates? The Times article is not comforting, reporting, “It is not clear what will happen to the captured pirates. They are in custody aboard one of the ships in the task force and the officers are awaiting orders from higher levels. While hundreds of Somali pirates have recently been sent to jail in Kenya, the Seychelles or Somalia, and a few have even been taken to Europe and the United States, many more have been set free by Western navies in a controversial ‘catch and release’ approach because of the complications of prosecuting suspects arrested on the high seas.”
If memory serves me correctly, not long ago, one pirate taken to the U.S. escaped punishment because he was allegedly underage. In our crazy world, he’s probably now at Harvard, either as a student or an adjunct professor. Remember the homeless woman, Billie Boggs, who was picked up off the streets during my mayoral administration and taken to the hospital for medical care, where she refused treatment, was defended in her positions by the New York Civil Liberties Union and was invited to and did lecture at Harvard? A true story.
What would Captain Bligh – remember him as portrayed by Charles Laughton in “Mutiny on the Bounty?” — have done to pirates or mutineers? We know. He would have keelhauled them (Google it to find out what that means) or hanged them from the ship’s yardarm, or both. By the way, Captain Bligh was ultimately recognized by the British navy as a good guy and the mutineers under Fletcher Christian (portrayed by Clark Gable) lionized by Hollywood turned out to be the bad guys. Many Hollywood figures today like Oliver Stone and Sean Penn still exercise the worst of judgments in who they hang with and create fan clubs for: the likes of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.
The Honorable Edward Irving Koch served New York City as its 105th Mayor from 1978 to 1989. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org