Last week's high-seas drama off the coast of Somalia, which ended with the freeing of cargo ship captain Richard Phillips and the death of three of his four captors, grabbed the world's attention like no other Somali pirate attack before it. Maybe it's because the assault came at such a tumultuous time; with so much upheaval and change taking place worldwide, the east African pirates were yet another new thing to absorb and try to understand. And yet, to me at least, there seemed to be something oddly familiar about last week's ship-boarding and hostage-taking. I tried to place what it was that struck a chord, but I couldn't.
At first I thought the puzzling familiarity probably came from having seen too many pirate movies over the years. But no, that couldn't have been it; the Somalis used guns and cell phones rather than the Blackbeard era's swords and whips, and there wasn't a single peg leg or parrot in sight. So what was it about the hostage-taking Somalis and their $2 million ransom demand that seemed so damned familiar?
A conversation with an old friend, we'll call him the Prof, solved the mystery.
"They're a microcosm," my friend said.
"Who? The pirates?" I asked.
"Sure. They're a microcosm of what we've been seeing on the news for months."
Now I was starting to see the light.
"Think about it," the Prof continued. "Basically, these guys are like the banking and Wall Street crooks who wrecked the economy, except we're the ones being held hostage for ransom, or as it's called now, bailout money."
"That's it! I knew something seemed close to home about this pirate thing, but I couldn't quite get a handle on it."
"Well, sure, the pirates are like a small-time, entrepreneurial version of the big-time crooks on Wall Street. The financiers and investment bankers hijack the economy for their own quick profit, and then when they're caught, they hold the economy's future hostage while they demand humongous amounts of money. The only differences are that the Somalis may actually need the money, and they pulled guns while the bankers didn't even have to."
Another difference, too, is that the surviving Somali pirate may actually apologize, if only to keep his punishment to a minimum, while no apologies will be forthcoming from the John Thains and Ken Lewises of the world. No, they'll continue to take our money while they preen and strut around as if they know what they're doing. And why wouldn't they, since there's every indication from the Obama administration that the high-flying execs are in no danger of ever having to pay for their crimes -- despite the American public's current mood, which was presciently summed up years ago in the Beatles song "Little Piggies": "What they need's a damn good whacking."
Last week, Congressional Democrats plainly asked Obama why he is "coddling the bankers," something many progressives are increasingly antsy about. Various speculative answers to the Dems' question have been offered, but one that seems to be gaining traction in liberal circles is that the wheeler-dealers on Wall Street created such a complex, indecipherable web of deceitful practices that they could very well bring down the entire economy if the government gets "too tough" with them. If this theory proves to be true, then the financial mischief we've seen in New York and, yes, Charlotte really does amount to piracy -- but on a more monumental level than ever dreamed of before, a level the ragtag Somalis would never dare to imagine.
It's odd when you think of it. Our government took decisive action against the foreign pirates, even killing most of them, while our homegrown pirates, who blitzed through more money than most of us can conceive of, well, let's see, they're being inconvenienced by hearings and, um, that's about it. And remember, no matter how inconvenient they find the attention they're getting, these destructive weasels are still rolling in money -- our money.
One other thing was made clear by last week's Indian Ocean caper, and that's the value of Obama's calls for international cooperation. The hijacked cargo ship was quickly reported and rescued thanks to increased communications among countries who have ships off the Horn of Africa. The area is being patrolled by warships from at least 20 nations, including the United States, Russia, China, France, and India. After last week, that number is likely to grow larger, and the communications more consistent, especially after seeing the latest reports from South Asia, where multi-national cooperation has seriously curtailed piracy in that part of the world. That success is a tribute to what can be accomplished when countries look beyond immediate economic or strategic interests to fight common problems. It's an example that applies to nuclear proliferation, global warming and a host of problems including, of course, the world's pirate-plundered economies.
So here we are, suddenly living in a world of pirates. Look closely, however, and you'll see that we've been living in an age of piracy for some time. Pirates sail the oceans, and pirates have been ruling our financial institutions. Right now, it's not too clear which is worse.
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