These pirates shouldn’t be punchlines

April 15, 2009

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

Kidnapping isn’t funny.

Neither are extortion, hijacking or murder threats.

So why have some in the media been laughing—or at least winking—at people who have been doing precisely that—the criminals who have been hijacking ships and crews off the Horn of Africa and holding them for ransom?

I think it has something to do with what we’ve chosen to call them: pirates.

Perhaps we in the media have all seen too many cartoonish films with Johnny Depp portraying the charming and engaging Jack Sparrow. Or maybe we remember an earlier era when Errol Flynn played a charming and engaging Geoffrey Thorpe who fights for commerce and his country (England) and the affections of a Spanish princess.

Maybe we need a break from the mostly grim coverage of the financial crisis and evaporating savings, continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a tide of gun violence and unrest around the world.

The day after the crew of the Maersk Alabama kept control of their ship after the attack by pirates who later held Capt. Richard Phillips, the front-page headline in the New York Post was: “Yo, Ho, D’oh.”

A Google News search over the past month shows 414 stories with references to “ahoy,” 150 to “avast,” 76 to “walk the plank,” 61 to “Davy Jones,” and 165 to varying spellings of “arrgh.”

The White House press corps was not immune. As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote (sprinkling his piece with references to Davy Jones, walking the plank and scallywags), “ …the discussion of an American shipping captain’s successful rescue from pirates over the weekend brought the rare sensation of adventure on the high seas to the White House briefing room yesterday—and everybody seemed to enjoy the diversion.”

Maybe we do need the diversion, but this is deadly serious business and I wonder if we’re calling the Somali “pirates” something they aren’t.

At the risk of being accused of splitting hairs (oh, let’s split hairs!), dictionary definitions of “pirate” and “piracy” traditionally have much more to do with theft than kidnapping.

According to Merriam Webster online, “piracy” is defined as “1: an act of robbery on the high seas; also: an act resembling such robbery 2: robbery on the high seas 3a: the unauthorized use of another’s production, invention, or conception especially in infringement of a copyright b: the illicit accessing of broadcast signals.”

Putting aside the third definition (that’s another column), it seems that what the Somali “pirates” are doing is closer to extortion and kidnapping than robbery. They don’t want the grain in the holds of the Maersk Alabama and other famine relief ships headed to Kenya or even the vehicles on the decks of other seized ships. They don’t even want the ships. They want to exchange the ships and their cargoes for a ransom that is a very small percentage of what they are actually worth.

I know this isn’t the Council of Trent and I don’t hold out much hope of persuading my colleagues to call the “pirates” something else, like “kidnappers” or “extortionists” or “hijackers.” But I think we could turn down the “shiver me timbers” index considerably.

There are signs that the coverage of the kidnappings off the Horn of Africa are changing the ways some people think about “pirates.”

In Grand Rapids, Mich., Amy Hekman, a childhood literacy coach, told the Grand Rapids Press that when she’s talking to her children about the incidents, “I’ve been conscious not to use the word ‘pirate.’ I tell them a ship was captured.”

And 10-year-old Jacob Peterson told the paper that he’s not sure he’ll want to reprise his pirate costume for Halloween, because, he said, the Somali “pirates” “seem mean.”

Thank you, Jacob.


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Years of fish poaching and toxic waste dumping off the coast of a failed state. Not even the courtesy of a reply from the developed world to the complaints of the Somalis. Arrogance, greed, and crime taking advantage of a situation and a desperate people with no defense.

Posted by Scott Callaway | Report as abusive

This kind of attitute just adds to the shcok factor when something bad happens back home, aka 9/11.

Posted by chocospoon | Report as abusive

Ray Ryan,

You’ve got it so very wrong in a fundamentally important way…..this is OUR world. You write in a glib manner that while indicating that you are knowledgable where facts may be concerned…..yet belies that you are substantially off-topic/ignorant when it comes to how to deal with these thugs. Listen up, my likely comfortable and safe penpal, when it comes to our global responsibility for dealing effectively and brutally, if need be, with these thieves, pirates, extortionists, kidnappers; by whatever name, they are OUR problem in OUR world. Cloak your opinion in whatever isolationist, “I’m comfortable here in my library” ideas/opinions such that you can toss off glib comments such as “So be it, its your world”. Wake up, lad, what is occuring near Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden is but one of the increasingly numerous examples of the tyranny, terrorism and targeting of the innocent in “failed states” and those from the free world which is occuring at an alarmingly increasing rate throughout both hemispheres of our planet. My words are not at all an effort to cast this situation as one of the west vs Islam. Rather, it is quite clear that, irrespective of religious belief, we must target and do our best to eradicate injustice, tyranny, terrorism and thievery wherever they occur, under the cloak of whatever religion/culture/military principle such villians hide themselves.

The democracies and free nations of the world must do this together; yes, ALL OF US, an increasingly rag-tag consortium of democracies throughout the world who give a damn about our planet’s collective future and hopefully everyone’s personal freedom to live without fear of puppet governmental regimes, or of the gangs serving multitudinous despots.

Enjoy your cognac by the fireside, Ray, though while so doing, please contemplate how less well-off than you in myriad ways are the teeming masses who make up the other 7/8ths of the world.

Add David Letterman to the media jokers relative to piracy. I think his joke last night was in very poor taste. He should wise up and find some funnier material than to poke “fun” at a very unfunny situation. He hope he does not decide to sail around the Saychelles or around the horn himself.

Posted by Brenda | Report as abusive

Oh .. nice job
Run a post with that headline and you are bound to get some readers … give me(us)a break. You know darn well they,the PITRATES, deserve all they get. Perhaps all we need is a diversion from you…there ya go again getting me to take time to post comments about you…… wow you are good … or should I say a desperate writer.

Posted by Baxter | Report as abusive

Man, 90% of you people need to learn how to spell and/or write a proper sentence. that goes for you mr phd (which as far as i’m concerned stands for piled higher and deeper.

as i recall, hillary recently laughed her very large behind off over the piracy issue standing next to a head of state. what do you all say about that?

Posted by ircknemcke | Report as abusive

Why doesn’t the main stream press report on the actions that triggered the Somalia’s to begin the kidnapping and extortion years ago. The story about the violation of coastline by other fishing fleets and the dumping of toxic waste within their territorial waters. I’m sure if it same was happening to the US we’d be having a fit as well.

It’s difficult to believe the total tripe of the whole of responses to this article. These are not storybook pirates.

This is a very well organised group that reaches to the very top of African politics. There really are NO governments functioning in Africa today. They exist in name only. One needs only to look to Mugabe and his history to understand that this pirate stuff is being played out by people onshore, like Mugabe, who benefit only to their own support and chosen citizens.

Attempting to identify the players in this Somali effort is difficult except for those closely entwined in the study of Africa’s current politic. The piracy issue is a small part of the whole and folks playing ‘Monday morning quarterback’ are way off the mark.

These responses are quite superficial.

It is quite easy to stop the piracy acts but the carnage would be reported to the world and the ‘feel sorry for the pirates’ folks would have a field day extolling the presumption that they are freedom fighters and the opposition would have a time explaining to deaf ears just who these folks are and who and what they represent in the bigger picture. Now kids, back to school.

Perhaps, dear author, you don’t understand one the purposes of humor — consider (for example) why potential victims made jokes during the pograms.

(Hint — pretty much all human behavior is driven by evolutionary goals such as survival)

Posted by David Jameson | Report as abusive


Here, Captain “Tact”, educate yourself before you say anything else to demonstrate your lack of understanding of the world around you.

America’s support for a violent strongman during Somalia’s formative post-colonial years hindered the development of stable political institutions and severely complicated its capacity for effective self-rule and sustainable growth.

The country’s markets are also victims of foreign meddling, fatalities of the backhanded ‘charity’ which has made Western actors—and especially the U.S.—distrusted throughout the Third World. Rendered economically impotent through the misapplication of aid and assistance by the U.S. government and various NGOs, it is no surprise that Somalis have turned to brigandry for sustenance.

Modern Somalia was formed from the 1960 union of two European colonies, one British, the other Italian. What began as an exercise in constitutional democracy rapidly devolved into a dictatorship under the command of Maxamed Siyaad Barre.

Although Barre originally aligned his nation with the USSR, the relationship soured in 1977-79. Moscow eventually abandoned Somalia altogether, throwing its weight behind neighboring Ethiopia in a conflict over the disputed Ogaden region.

Reeling from the Soviet betrayal, Barre appealed to America for military assistance in the fighting of foreign wars and the suppression of internal resistance. In typical fashion, President Carter waffled, green lighting the shipment of munitions but then changing his mind at the critical moment.

Deprived of a sympathetic great power, Somali forces were run out of the Ogaden by a combined Ethiopian-Cuban-Soviet task force. Barre’s regime teetered on the verge of collapse.

However, under the consummate Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan, America suddenly renewed its interest in the Horn of Africa. Henry Kissinger met personally with Barre, and in 1981 the U.S. began supplying the dictator with arms and some $100 million per year.

In exchange, America was granted control of the deep-sea port of Berbera on the Gulf of Aden. Berbera was deemed of considerable strategic significance in countering Soviet designs in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It had the added advantage of overlooking a key oil route.

Fortifying his rule with American weapons and treasure, Barre managed to survive the Cold War. His nation was not so lucky.

Like most Third World pawns, Barre’s regime was fundamentally unsound, necessitating ever greater levels of financial aid. At the conclusion of the Cold War, American politicians downgraded Somalia’s importance, deeming it an unnecessary expenditure.

As American patronage waned, unrest turned to full-fledged civil war. Barre was ousted in 1991 and died of heart attack in 1995. In the intervening years, America attempted a ‘humanitarian invasion’ of Somalia. It ended in the humiliation of the ‘Black Hawk Down’ fiasco. By then, Somalia was overwhelmed by the anarchy with which its name is now synonymous.

Despite America’s loud talk of championing democracy and human rights abroad, we encouraged neither during Somalia’s crucial post-colonial years. Although our sponsorship of Barre afforded opportunities aplenty for promoting responsible governance, we instead enabled a tradition of illiberal rule-by-force.

Somalia entered the 1990s with an economy as nonexistent as its political institutions. This too was the fault of American and Western planners.

Over the years, its markets atrophied as its people grew accustomed to the foreign dole. Somalia’s agricultural industry was undermined by shipment after shipment of crops, which were sold at exaggeratedly low prices to the detriment of local farmers, who simply could not compete.

Without an organic market of indigenous producers, Somalis were forced into a cycle of dependency. How ironic: In the hopes of eliminating starvation in Somalia, we in fact eliminated the country’s ability to feed itself, making starvation all but inevitable.

The situation was exacerbated by a legacy of man-made famines and refugee crises. These humanitarian emergencies were engineered by Barre with the approval of the United States, which steadily supported a regime that was driving its country into the ground.

Barre was notorious for hoarding food aid, lavishing it upon an ever-tightening circle of ethnic supporters and withholding it from the nation’s other clans, which were increasingly at odds with his regime.

With the cessation of large scale food aid from the U.S., Barre was robbed of a major power-preserving tool. With next to no support among the populace, he was forced from office.

However, Somali clans continue to extract significant food aid from foreign agents. Food in Somalia is explicitly political, used to reward allegiance and punish resistance. In this way, Westerners are fueling a conflict that might already have run its course without outside interference.

Americans are in a frenzy over the advance of Somali pirates upon American merchants. What you do not understand is America’s role in undoing the very fabric of Somali society—and the creation of a power vacuum that has been filled by criminals over the past twenty-five years.

Somalia is a case study in unintended consequences and blowback. It is another Afghanistan. The USA has a great deal of responsibility for what has happened there, and for what has happened in Somalia. People who have no understanding of the world outside of what is fed to them through their living room TV sets will never get this.

Posted by getplaning | Report as abusive

hey 526 am.
how sick am i of idiots like you blaming the u.s for every thing gone awry in world history since its birth? i am positive u r one of the many victimcrats clogging up courts with lawsuits over spilled hot coffee and someone looking at you the “wrong” way. that’s all i need to say. you can figure out the rest when you’re done making financial restitution to descendants of slavery who lived 200 years ago and with witch you had nothing to do.

Posted by so-over-the-blame | Report as abusive

getplaning. I agree that what has happened in Africa is due in large part to Western meddling, but to remove all blame from the evil doings of the pirates is just as reprehensible. Did you seriously type all of that up, or just copy and paste from site to site until your inane ideas on int’l politics are realized (or actually, ignored)

Posted by JJ | Report as abusive

This whole thing is a non issue. Small dingies? 17 year old idiots with Ak47s?

Nothing some sentries and a machine gun can’t fix. Or even some guys with some rifles.

Its just that the shipping companies don’t want to fork out for hazard pay, and the UN doesn’t want the bad PR of blowing the somalis into little bits.

As for the pirate fanboys? We can spend many billions trying to fix a non-existant state, or just shoot a couple of outlaws.

Which one seems cheaper to you?

Posted by John Smith | Report as abusive

lol some of you need to step away from the video games with your pirate solutions and try learning about the real world.

Posted by ryan | Report as abusive

We can talk about blame or the desired literary meaning of words in the English language until the cows come home(i knew you’d love that Mr Wright), but what good does that do?

Should we go back to basics? Parenting 101. Make the action undesirable for the offender/s to repeat.
So how can this principle be applied here? Could the punishment required be as harsh as caning, stoning or the loss of a hand, since a pirate is simply a mere thief!

Or we could threaten them with the comforts of Guantanamo Bay????

Posted by Sally | Report as abusive


Have you not looked at what is required under International law about the arming of civilian ships – you do that and the whole veneer or order that is held together by these few agreements declines into anarchy

What about the fact they have RPGs powerful enough to penetrate the hull of these ships. Looks like a good Idea to defend yourselves if you are on an oil tanker.

What about mutiny if you arm half the crew

What about training, these guys are sailors – not soldiers

What about the fact that as soon as you engage in a fight then there is a probable loss of life on the part of the sailors

What about the fact that these ships are the size of many sports fields and yet the crew number only a handful, and are occupied in operating the ship not guarding the rails. – By the time they are on board it is too late.

The premise of the article is correct we see in the western world from our ivory towers the misnomer that pirates are similar to robin hood. The little good guy fighting the large evil behemoth. Something conjured up in a fanciful depiction by filmmakers.

These guys are criminals no more no less they are using the same force used to destroy the world trade centres, the guy who robs you on the subway, or the guy who hijacks the car in the street (yes it happens)

Don’t trivialise it!

Posted by Kevin | Report as abusive

What do you call a african with a sub machine gun ?
The answer is “YES SIR”.
Does it make any difference what the crime is called?
No, I don’t think it matters at all.
Imagine you are the family on a yacht, with a group of desperate young men with machine guns…do you care that they are called burglars fraudsters extortionists?
The fact is, that on the high seas they can board you, steal everything and then kill you all, and only your relatives will realise that you are missing some months in the future….
PIRACY is the correct word, as it indicates the seriousness and barbarity of the offfence and should enable the world’s blue water navies to blow them out of the water without explanation.!!!

I’ve read through a chunk of the comments attached to this article. I find it quite inexcusable that any passing ship should bear the brunt of the Somali Pirates’ resentment about their poor lot in life caused as ever by the big bad WEST, who stole their fish corrupted their morals and poisoned their minds…yes its always someone else’s fault is it not?

I now formally apologise for all my forebearers nasty deeds, including the building of roads and railways and power stations and hospitals. Sometimes I wish we could just take it all back and let these noble people get on with their lives, as they so wish.

I imagine Mr. Wright w/ a subtle lisp, “C’mon you guysth, piratesth are seriousth businessth! Gaw!”. Then he proceeds to bolster the pathetic image by nitpicking definitions. I would imagine that pirates, then and now were opportunists and couldn’t give a hoot in hell about what we call them. I’ll bet some “classic” pirates engaged in all kinds of criminal activity beyond theft. They were still pirates. Besides, I thought these pirates were stealing ships, the people are along for the ride. And isn’t kdnapping just theft of people?

Posted by Chris | Report as abusive

The Today Show started on Tuesday with “the pirates are still holding the captain hostage in the lifeboat”
What kind of image does this create in your mind?
It got so ridiculous, that a Happy Jack Flag graphic was used on the local news (NBC4-DC).
I say send in the USS Constitution and lets have some fun here, it could be the next new reality series, and it would be a movie bonanza !Fire the cannonballs at the pirates !What a way to jump start the economy.
Avast ye Pirates !!

lol some of you need to step away from the hippy peacenik mull-induced pirate solutions and try learning about the real world.

Posted by Anti-Ryan | Report as abusive

Well Kevin, then get the UN peacekeepers to be the sentries on the boats. Cheaper then having them all on a frigate constantly reacting to attacks.

Seriously. If the area is becoming a bloody warzone, I think private shipping can defend themselves with weapons.

Posted by John Smith | Report as abusive

Maybe I’m just missing the point of this Blog post, but the google news search numbers are completely useless and counter-productive to what seems to be your point. Maybe it is because you searched two days ago, but if you had bothered to actually look at what the articles that used words like “Ahoy” and “Avast” and “Walk the Plank” were you would have realized that the vast majority were actually about other things (ranging from a highly publicized trial over file-sharing, to community events, to quite a few local police blotters, to a popular anti-virus software).

Doing the more responsible thing of adding other words like “Somalia” or “Gulf of Aden” to your search would have been really useful. I figure you overestimated your numbers by about a factor of 20, with that only representing much less than 1% of all the news stories about the recent pirate attacks off the coast of Africa.

Posted by Travis | Report as abusive

I agree with getplanning with the history of Somalia, but how we have to deal with “thieves, Kidnappers, Ransomers,gun totting Islamist, who have created havoc in the human and goods toll and have disrupted the normal commerce.

Those above terms if OB has his way will be banished because of political correctness. This is worlds problem and it has to dealt with force since we are no longer in the nation building business. Diplomacy will not work as it is a failed state and these goons are independent and have free access to arms and in turn to ransom money to enjoy their life style.

If rest of the coward world does not do it I guess we will have to clean up that mess. But they are no pirates in any shape or form.

Posted by VJ | Report as abusive


How many hours of Fox do you subject you little mind to every day? I bet it’s more than four.

Posted by getplaning | Report as abusive

Dear Mr Wright,

Do you ever just feel like going back to bed and staying there, abandoning any attempt to ever write anything that someone will understand? If you do, after viewing some of the comments posted here, I completely understand why. Unlike of some of the geniuses who have voiced their opinions that have very little to do with your article, I actually read your article and am responding in kind.

You make a valid point about using the terms “pirate” and “piracy”. The deterioration in the use of correct language by everyone, not to mention the media, has become ridiculously commonplace. Regrettably, once the media misuses a term, it is like giving a green to everyone else to misuse the same term and believe its use is correct. The ignorance of general public never ceases to amaze me.

Nice article, even if is a bit like pouring perfume on a pig!

Posted by Star Bustamonte | Report as abusive

The article may not have been brilliantly done, (it seemed more like a force piece to meet a deadline perhaps) he does have a point. Today in breaking news AP (and who seriously looks to them for reliable news?) confidently ponts to ‘anyone knows the reason for piracy is illegal fishing’ or words to that effect I do not know the cause for piracy is fishing, the Maersk Alabama was not a fishing ship, nor so many other ships being hijacked. AP, you blast what shreds of credibility you have with each silly assumption. One thing I do know, those three pirates holding the captain will never do it again. The ancient maritime penalty for piracy was hanging, or walking the plank. The new law, and the threatened ‘law of the sea treaty’ weakness are exposed here. When Nator captures pirates and has to release them because they have no authority, we are doomed.

Posted by Roger | Report as abusive

“…What about the fact they have RPGs powerful enough to penetrate the hull of these ships…What about mutiny if you arm half the crew…What about training, these guys are sailors – not soldiers

What about the fact that as soon as you engage in a fight then there is a probable loss of life on the part of the sailors

What about the fact that these ships are the size of many sports fields and yet the crew number only a handful, and are occupied in operating the ship not guarding the rails. – By the time they are on board it is too late…” – posted by Kevin

An autocannon like Oerlikon 20mm or Bofors 40mm is not much more difficult to operate than AK-47. If illiterate Somalis learned it, the sailors can too. It can be even operated remotely from the bridge. Its power at least equals that of RPG, and both the range and the rate of fire greatly exceed RPG. As for using one for mutiny or settling personal scores, Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Terminator probably would be able to take one off the mount and fire it while holding with bare hands. For a normal man it’s impossible.
There is no need to assign extra men as lookouts. On every modern and even not-so-modern ship there is a device named Radar that does 360 degree surveillance, and someone at the bridge is supposed to constantly look at radar screen anyway. The range of the radar is such that it would provide advanced warning giving the crew ample time to man the cannons. All that’s needed is the willingness of ship owners to install these defense weapons.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

This is a very silly article. Piracy it is, period.

Posted by Rory | Report as abusive

I am writing this because I have someone on a ship right now out by those waters with the pirates. He works for the Maersk line and they have no support out there!! They will be going though the pirate area again. They were attacked 2 times the first time going through just before the Alabama was attacked. They left them alone only because they are bigger and faster then some of the other ships that were there at that time. They reported the incidence and no help was sent!! Now they have to come back again and they are concerned about their lives!! If everyone could say something to their Congressman and Senators maybe we can stop this insanity!!! These guys have family and friends who love them dearly and do not want them hurt!! Think about their lives right now!! What if they were your family or friend?????

Posted by Charlie | Report as abusive

I agree that, in this case, the term ‘pirate’ may not be used with great precision or within a lexicon’s strict definition of the word However, the hunting grounds these perpetrators lurk are, after all, the high seas. I think an open interpretation would support any culprit committing any crimes in that venue may be categorized as a pirate. Lighted up.
Which brings me to the subject of levity.
Being serious all the time will kill you just as sure as chronic smoking or excessive libation. I was raised to make joke in response to the adversity life throws at us. I’d rather make fun of the swashbucklers then discuss in solemn detail the crimes they commit. And at the end of the day I’ll bet my making them smile will be remembered and you bringing them down will be forgotten.
Yes, it is horrific that people in that one million square mile of sea are being subjected to acts of piracy. And have been for quite a few years. Anyone sailing those parts knows in advance they may come under fire from the lawless in the region. But, they’ve made their decision to brave it and go onward. That risk is an inherent part of the job they undertake and the large paycheck given them by the shipper reflects acknowledgment and compensation for that risk. I know a guy who use to sail a French vessel through the strait. I promised to never say it outright but in five years he retired better than most do in a lifetime. So, although I will pray for those in harm’s way, I will not feel sorry for them if that is what they choose to do for a living.

Posted by Mark | Report as abusive

What the Somali pirates are doing is bad, specially now that they are really getting too greedy and overdoing it, but let’s not forget the reason why most of these guys are forced into piracy or the kidnap for ransom scheme. Their country is a mess. No real functioning government, their economy is toast. No jobs. So the lure of easy money by joining the pirates is strong. These guys are not killers, as far as I can find they haven’t killed any of their hostages at all. They are in it for the money. Most experts seem to agree that a military solution is going to be only a band-aid solution (there aren’t enough available battleships in the world to patrol the large area these pirates operate in), and that to permanently end the piracy problem in that region, the international community must first find a way to “fix” the problem in Somalia. Yup..easier said than done. I hope the international community does eventually find a way to help solve the problems of Somalia or at least aid in the creation of a functioning government.

Posted by RC | Report as abusive

They are pirates.They should be hunted down and hung. Taking other people and other peoples property is a crime.
Do you know what the punishment would be in a muslim country for such a crime? You would lose a part of your body.Yes the people who take these jobs know there will be danger on any given day.But the danger from Mother Nature is no in the same category as danger from humans
who know what they are doing is wrong.Arm the ships and crews. Put up 24 hour armed experienced personel on guard. What is cheaper 12 more employees or ransom and not havin your tools for commerce. And the aid will get where its needed.We did not create the Somolia problem, nor should we spend one red dime to do so. Fix America. Or let the bleeding hearts put their money out there to fix the problem. I want my taxes for my country, or I want them back.
Any country that has a ship thats has been hijacked should be doing what ever it takes to get their people free and their property back. If that means killing some heathens who care not one iota for human life so be it.

RL Thomas New Orleans,La USA

Wonderful article……
the nations of the world should take
action and stop those…. rats

Posted by James Renko | Report as abusive