Since February, the Danish sailor Jan Quist Johansen, his wife, Birgit, and their three children, Rune, Hjalte and Naja, have been held hostage by Somali pirates. After a failed rescue attempt in March, the family has been treated brutally and many now claim that if the ransom is not paid immediately, they risk execution – just as two American couples, Jean and Scott Adams, and Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle, were executed by pirates earlier this year when ransoms were not paid in time.
The human cost of refusing to pay is high. Sadly, however, the human cost of paying is even higher.
By paying the pirates, we encourage piracy – and the reason why the Johansen family is now held hostage is that over recent years, countries and companies have made it customary to pay ransoms when pirates seize ships. This policy has led to a dramatic increase in both the number of seizures and the size of demands. In 2009, Somali pirates received $58 million in ransoms; in 2010, they received $238 million. The current year of 2011 is on its way to hit a new record high, and Geopolicity Inc. has estimated the piracy “market” to be worth between $4.9 billion and $8.3 billion.
No one should be surprised that by paying hundreds of millions of dollars in ransoms, we have gotten more of what we have paid for. History has taught us this time and time again. Yet every time, we have forgotten our hard-earned lesson.
When the Danes were on the other side of the deal and the British and French paid Danegeld (Danish tax) to avoid Viking attacks, the Vikings gained strength and for each payment, their next demand was higher. While the Danegeld in 990 A.D. was 11,500 ounces of silver, it was 450,000 ounces in 1007 A.D. and 650,000 ounces in 1012 A.D. Rudyard Kipling described the practice aptly in his poem “Danegeld”:
It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say:
“Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”
And that is called paying the Danegeld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Danegeld
You never get rid of the Dane.
The British and the French have paid large-scale ransoms in more recent times as well. In the 18th century, when seizures by North African pirates were on the rise, they paid liberally to avoid confrontation. In the latter half of that century, another country also became a tempting target for the pirates: the United States – a young country with its military forces several weeks’ journey away. The seizure of U.S. ships started when the Betsy was taken by Moroccan pirates in 1784. To get the ship back and to save captain and crew from being sold as slaves, the United States paid the pirates $20,000. Less than a year later, two ships, the Dauphin and the Maria, were seized by Algerian pirates. Now the ransom demanded was $60,000. Again, the United States paid. In 1793, Algeria held 11 American ships and 105 crew members hostage. To set them free, Algeria demanded $600,000 – a sum the U.S. paid partly in gunpowder and weapons.
When Thomas Jefferson assumed the presidency after John Adams, U.S. foreign policy changed and Jefferson initiated the Barbary Wars. Although the First Barbary War was not successful, the Second Barbary War was. By sending heavily armed naval vessels to the Mediterranean, the U.S. military killed numerous pirates and sunk numerous pirate ships – and once they gained the upper hand, they demanded unconditional surrender, threatening complete annihilation if their demands were not met. Contrary to custom, the United States also refused to pay to have the remaining hostages freed. The slogan of the war was “Millions for defense, but not a cent for tribute.” Stephen Decatur, who led the forces, said during the negotiations, “If you insist upon receiving gunpowder as tribute, you must expect to receive [cannon] balls with it.” Decatur brought the pirates to their knees and by doing so, secured for the United States its reputation as a nation one is well advised not to attack.
We must learn from Jefferson and Decatur and understand that the reason why the pirates attack us is that by paying, we have made it lucrative to attack. Somali pirates are responsive to incentives. As Martin Murphy writes in “Somalia, the New Barbary?” (Columbia University Press, 2011), they are neither irrational nor desperate and poverty-stricken. Rather, Somali piracy is financed in a manner resembling a stock market: The pirates and their investors calculate risk and on the street in Somalia, pirates are “identifiable by their cellphones, Western cigarettes and access to plentiful supplies of khat.” The pirates know what they are doing, as is made evident by the fact that Russian and Iranian ships are left alone. Russia and Iran both refused to negotiate the first time their ships were seized and resolutely attacked the pirates. Those who hijack ships, it seems, are as responsive to incentives as are those who hijack airplanes. Since most countries stopped negotiating with airplane hijackers after Sept. 11, 2001, virtually no airplanes have been hijacked.
It is tempting to pay the ransom to save the Johansen family but if we do, we sacrifice future families by giving the pirates more incentive to attack. Admittedly, we feel more strongly about the misery of those who are kept hostage today than we feel about the misery of future hostages whose identity we do not yet know. That, however, should not dictate defense policy and had the international community understood that five years ago, the Johansen family would not be held hostage today.
Rather than paying, we should attack – and we should do so resolutely, with overwhelming military force. A relentless assault is desirable because it lowers the risk of a long, drawn-out, tortuous battle. When hundreds of warships fill the horizon and a pirate’s only hope for survival lies in dropping his weapons and not harming hostages, chances are he will understand where his interests lie. Most importantly, however, an overwhelming attack would make piracy cost more than it is worth and establishing that would save future sailors from pirate attacks.
To place piracy where it belongs – in history books – we must brace ourselves and follow Kipling’s advice:
It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say:
We never pay anyone Danegeld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!
Ole Martin Moen, research fellow in philosophy at the University of Oslo.