Todd Hartley: I’m With Stupid |

Todd Hartley: I’m With Stupid

Todd Hartley
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

A German cargo ship was hijacked 46 miles south of Yemen in the volatile Gulf of Aden on Tuesday, bringing to 20 the estimated number of ships currently being held by pirates.

Yeah, yeah, I know. You don’t care. You’re tired of hearing about Somali pirates hijacking ships. I agree with you completely. A story can’t really be considered news when it occurs once or twice every week, can it? At some point it becomes so boring that you just tune it out.

But Tuesday may have also marked a turning point in the way ships deal with the threat of piracy, thanks to a man named Philip Shapiro, the head of Liberty Maritime Corp., a U.S. shipping company that owns a vessel attacked by pirates near the Somali coast on April 14.

Appearing before a Senate Commerce subcommittee, Shapiro told lawmakers that U.S. cargo crews should be allowed to arm themselves in an effort to ward off attackers. This would constitute a major change from the “Let ships get hijacked and then pay a hefty ransom” policy currently in vogue.

Now, to someone like me, who knows nothing whatsoever about international shipping, the answer to the pirate problem ought to be pretty obvious: Just give each ship a rocket-propelled grenade launcher (RPG), and if the ship is approached by a small boat with an outboard motor and a handful of guys bearing machine guns, simply blow the small boat to smithereens. Do that often enough, and I imagine you would see a downturn in the number of hijackings.

I’m no math wizard, but it seems to me that more dead pirates plus more people scared of being pirates because they don’t want to be blown into little chunks of fish food would equal fewer pirates overall. In fact, I believe it was Pythagoras who first came up with that equation.

The answer, however, is not quite as simple as it might seem. U.S. crews have a right to arm themselves under laws dating back to 1819, but recent State Department regulations governing the exporting of weapons have essentially made it illegal for ships to bear arms. The fear, apparently, is that if you let ships carry weapons, they just might sell those weapons to Somali pirates.

In addition, Shapiro finds himself at odds with other bigwigs within his own industry. Joe Cox, president of the Chamber of Shipping of America, which represents 32 shipping companies, has cautioned that deploying armed guards on cargo ships could escalate violence if pirates expect a gunfight.

Shapiro does have one very influential ally on his side, though. In late April, none other than U.S. Gen. David Petraeus told lawmakers that trying to outrun pirates or deter them with water hoses isn’t enough, and ships should consider arming themselves. “It’s tough to be on the end of a water hose,” he said, “if the other guy is on the end of an RPG.”

Given that level of support, the idea of armed guards is slowly catching on with naysayers like Cox, who recently changed his take on the subject from “no guns on ships” to “let’s talk” and acknowledged that something has to be done.

The major remaining obstacle to such a policy, however, is that arming ships would render them unable to put in at ports in some nations. This is an entirely reasonable policy on the part of such nations. I know that if an Iranian ship pulled into New York harbor with a bunch of grenade launchers aboard, people might be a little concerned. But I think there’s an easy way to circumvent this problem.

After each ship has used its RPG to blow up a few pirate boats and has gotten close enough to its destination that there’s no longer a threat of being hijacked, it could hand the RPG off to a ship headed out to sea so the whole process could repeat itself. In the event that there’s no ship headed out, the RPG could be tossed overboard.

Sure, I know that’s a waste of money, but it’s still cheaper than paying for Navy escorts for every ship in the Gulf of Aden, and it even gives peaceniks something to cheer about. After all, what better fate is there for deadly weapons than a short trip to a watery grave at the bottom of the ocean?