Our Timbers Should Shiver

The Somali pirate drama is one of those small, but potentially telling, incidents that happen from time to time. The pirates attacked a ship flying an American flag and took its captain hostage. Days have now passed, the captain remains a captive, and the pirates continue to thumb their noses at our government.

I am a subscriber to the “broken windows” theory described at some length in The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. That theory posits that people who live in a neighborhood that features little signs of unaddressed lawlessness — like broken windows, graffiti, and other petty crime — can lose hope and conclude that there is no law. Events then can spiral downward and out of control as people perceive that there is no order or authority. I think the same concept applies to international law. An attack by pirates may be a small matter — indeed, the concept of modern-day pirates seems ludicrous — but it is one of those signs of lawlessness that could promote more reckless illegal behavior by other renegade actors on the international stage.

Unfortunately, many civilized governments don’t seem to have the stomach to deal with the Somali pirates. Instead, they seem to hope that the pirates, or the terrorists, will realize that we mean them no harm and just go away. Our country, on the other hand, seems to have the will but is so bound up by concerns about legality and the perceptions of the international community that we shy away from taking unilateral action. In the meantime, outright piracy goes unpunished — and the number of broken windows in the neighborhood grows.

I think it is time for us to realize that our failure to act in these situations is sending a strong, but negative, message. It can only encourage other “bad actors” to commit acts that risk the mere disapproval of the civilized world, but no other consequences. If inaction continues, and piracy, kidnapping, and other guerilla tactics proliferate, the impact on things like international trade, democratic institutions, and global progress will be devastating. What is the point of being an economic and military giant if we cannot crush pirates who flout international law, and thereby send a message that such intolerable lawlessness will be dealt with swiftly, and with finality?

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