10A075 Pirates of the Horn by Jim Davies, 11/16/2010

Paul and Rachel Chandler are now, happily, home safe after their ordeal of over a year, having being captured by pirates off the Horn of Africa last year. Piracy is one of the many hazards faced by that other long-distance sailor, Laura Dekker - and even by crews of large oil tankers and cargo ships. It's worth reflecting on what piracy is.

Pirates in the 18th Century were a bloodthirsty lot; they spotted their target, hoisted the skull & cross bones, boarded the merchant ship, slaughtered its crew, made its captain walk the plank, then took its cargo for sale. The ship would also be sold, or used to enlarge the fleet. They were ruthless murderers, as well as thieves. Their modern counterparts are thieves and extortioners, but they kill only in the case of resistance, and keep their promises. The Chandlers had to wait because Her Majesty did not keep Hers to protect them (reasoning that to pay the ransom demanded would only stimulate more piracy) but fortunately they had friends who were able to raise the money. I hope the sale of book and movie rights will result in its recovery.

At root, a pirate is a governor. He is interfering in the peaceful life of his target, and imposing his own will on him or her; whereas the target has the absolute right to operate his own life, the pirate over-rules that right, with menaces. So do all thieves, extortioners, rapists, and killers. That's the basic reason why all such actions are morally repugnant. A mugger extorts treasure by direct threat to the victim - "your money or your life" - but pirates do it by kidnapping; they seize the victim and offer him (or his ship, or both) back to a third party for a fee. That is a "ransom" and in past centuries when kings actually led their armies into battle, governments would do that - hence the term "king's ransom" for a large pot of gold. In modern times that's rare; it was done in 1980 by the Iranians, but not since.

It's rare, that is, for them to do it to each other. They do it every day in every place in every way, to those living in their "own" domain, whom they can and do dominate or govern. In fact, if we compare governments to pirates, I'd say the pirates come out morally superior. They often treat their captives well whereas governments, usually, do not. They extort: "pay us a portion of all you earn, or we'll put you in a cage" - and the cage has a low level of comfort. "Pay us a percentage of your home's value, or we'll take it away from you" - presumably, leaving you to die on the street. "Pay us a fraction of what you buy, or we'll prevent you buying it." Then they disguise these brutal, vicious threats with fine words and procedures intended to convey the impression that refusal to cooperate fully is itself in some way culpable! - that the victim has done something wrong!

Pirates, kidnappers and private thieves are, usually, much more straightforward. They are vicious extortioners, but make no pretense to the contrary.

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