Obama Sends Wrong Message to Osama bin Laden With Slow Action on Pirates

By necessity, ships are unarmed. And this isn't the last we've heard from high-seas thieves.

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By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

President Obama was very lucky that the Navy Seals were able to rescue Capt. Richard Phillips from the pirates. The Obama administration's lack of decisive action was sending a dangerous signal to our enemies, but then, just in time, the Seals ended the hostage situation successfully. I've been reading this morning how pleased the White House is with the president's lack of saber-rattling, but I was very concerned with the message American inaction was sending—especially to Osama bin Laden.

Over the weekend, I spoke with my sister, who is a licensed captain and has sailed around the world. She is a professional sailor, so we were talking about how to prevent this from happening again. I asked her why, if piracy is such a problem, the crews of commercial vessels aren't armed. Not that they have to have cannons or torpedoes, but maybe sidearms would help stop pirates on small dinghies from pulling alongside and coming over the side of the boat.

She said crews cannot be armed for two reasons: first, the risk of mutiny by an armed crew overtaking the captain; and second, the fact that no port in the world will allow a ship run by an armed crew to dock. In fact, most nations require anyone on a vessel who is carrying a gun to surrender it upon entering that country's waters, and then return to pick up the gun upon leaving. That works if you're doing a loop, but if you're traveling in a straight line, you have to do a U-turn and go back and get your gun. Or leave your gun behind. So it's better not to have guns.

Instead, a whole industry has sprung up—companies that outfit commercial vessels with barbed wire and chain-link fencing to deter pirates from climbing up the sides of the boats. Apparently the pirates use grappling hooks and ropes, then shimmy up to the deck and overtake the crew. Old-fashioned concertina wire is very effective.

And while an international force currently patrols the shipping lanes, the coastlines are so long and the pirates too numerous to keep every freighter safe. Sounds like there is a lot more of this to come. Let's hope the president acts a little more quickly next time to send the message that piracy against the United States is a big mistake. Because from all signs so far, it seems this isn't the last we've heard from the pirates.

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