A couple of weeks ago, Somali pirates hijacked a cargo ship with 20 American crew members on board. Thank God and the Navy SEALs that they all got out alive. But will Americans be as lucky next time?
During 2008 alone, these thugs raided more than 130 vessels, resulting in 50 successful hijackings and millions of dollars paid in ransoms. With at least five well-organized pirate gangs off the Horn of Africa — including the al-Shabab militia, which is a group of Islamic extremists that some people compare to the Taliban — all seeking and splitting the spoils of these sea traders, isn’t it time America better protects our merchant mariners in volatile areas, such as off the Somali coast? Isn’t it time they are armed with better deterrents than fire hoses, rubber bullets and sonic weapons? Isn’t it time our Navy SEALs reach land and cut pirates off at the pass?
Ransoms only enable these hooligans. And negotiations never work with them. We need to cut them off so that no one else goes missing in action. For proof of that, we only need to look back and learn from our revolutionary predecessors. Our Founding Fathers not only demonstrated how we need to rescue our citizens but also instilled the notion within these pirates that America never will appease or tolerate captors and that we never will pay their ransoms again.
Some might not know that America has been dealing with African marauding mariners since our inception. Though it’s not a direct parallel, I believe we need to do as Thomas Jefferson did during the Barbary Wars, in which Muslim extremists, or pirates, from the Barbary States (Tripoli, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, which were semi-independent provinces of Turkey) fought many countries, including the new United States, that they considered Christian nations.
While the United States was mopping up from the Revolutionary War, we also were squaring off against largely Muslim pirates in the Mediterranean Sea. These sea bandits cruised the coastlines stealing cargo, destroying villages, and enslaving millions of Africans and hundreds of thousands of Christian Europeans and Americans. Because America was a newborn nation, we had relatively little naval defense. Our rebellion against Britain severed our protection by the Royal Navy. And while France helped during the Revolutionary War, we were on our own as of about 1783. And so our merchant ships were exceptionally vulnerable to attack in and out of the Great Sea. As a result, our cargo and seamen were captured, and our country’s leaders were forced to negotiate with the Barbary pirates.
In 1784, envoys were dispatched to secure peace and passage from the Barbary States. Treaties were made. Tributes and ransoms were paid. Our cargo and captives were freed. And our ships traveled safely. But over the next decade and a half, we gave millions of dollars to these radicals, including an estimated 20 percent of our federal budget in 1800! (Despite that, men such as Thomas Jefferson argued vehemently against paying ransoms and tribute; Jefferson believed the only road to resolution would be through the "medium of war.")
America’s first four presidents (Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison) each dealt with this east-west conflict of powers to varying degrees. Though numerous negotiations and treaties were made, including the Treaty of Tripoli (1796-97), Tripoli (in present-day Libya) still declared war against the U.S. in 1801. It sometimes is called America’s first official war. The Founders believed in a foreign policy of noninterventionism, but Jefferson realized that protecting America’s borders also meant protecting American lives and property overseas.
He confessed to Congress in 1801 that he was "unauthorized by the Constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense," but he still ordered a small fleet of warships to the Mediterranean to ward off attacks by the Barbary States. Marines and warships were deployed to the region. That eventually led to the 1805 surrender of Tripoli. It would take another decade, however, to defeat those pirates completely, or, should I say, cause them to retreat until a distant time when they would attack our country again.
America’s victory back then over those sea radicals is commemorated today in "The Marines’ Hymn," with the words "From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli, we fight our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea."
The voices of our forefathers cry out from the Barbary Wars in the hopes of imparting some wisdom to us. As the adage goes, we either will learn from history’s mistakes or be doomed to repeat them.