Yglesias has been all over the pirate front this week, especially with the kidnapping and subsequent rescue of the cargo ship’s captain. As a side note – amazing job by the Navy SEALs, especially the three snipers who made three bullseye shots in the dark through a plexiglass window. Anyhow, one of his posts was about a suggestion in Foreign Policy magazine to refer to the Somali pirates as ‘maritime terrorists.’
This is just silly. Just because they are dark-skinned folks from an area with problems with fundamentalist Muslims who are doing things we don’t like, we don’t get to call them ‘terrorists’, unless of course we want to redefine terrorism as ‘dark-skinned folks from an area with problems with fundamentalist Muslims who do things we don’t like’. But, to my mind, terrorists are people who perform horrible acts in order to inspire fear in a populace, in order to achieve some sort of political end. The Somalis have no political goals, and are not trying to inspire terror. They just want money. They’re willing to break all sorts of laws to get the money, but that just makes them criminals, not terrorists. And criminals on boats have, traditionally, been referred to as ‘pirates.’
I’ve heard the arguments as to why it’s not feasible to sufficiently arm all the shipping vessels to repel the pirate threat, and it seems fairly obvious to me that the pirates will always be able to adapt tactics to any predictable strategy from the merchants. But one strategy I have not seen suggested, but which seems promising to me, is to arm the living crap out of 1 out of every 25 or 30 ships – 30 marines armed to the teeth, with ‘shoot to kill’ orders upon the first hostile act by one of the pirate boats. Blast them all to hell with no warning, negotiation, or any chance for return fire.
The pirates’ odds of a successful attack would still be reasonably high, but when they choose poorly, they know exactly what the penalty will be. It seems like this ‘low odds of an extremely poor outcome’ might serve as a quite effective deterrent, assuming a basic level of non-desperation on the pirates’ part.
This reminds me of the most interesting bloggingheads I saw recently, between Mark Kleiman of the Reality Based Community and Megan McArdle of The Atlantic. Kleiman knows a whole lot about crime, and is really interesting to listen to. The most interesting thing I heard in the whole episode is his discussions of effective reforms to the penal code, in particular the way penalties are shapes and applies. Basically, the studies that he cites show that it’s possible to really reduce recidivism rates among parolees if infractions are punished quickly, surely, and comparatively lightly. You don’t need long, harsh prison sentences – in fact, they are not effective deterrents.
Instead, if penalties are levelled quickly, in a matter of hours or days instead of the usual weeks or months, and without round after round of appeal and interview and such, much shorter prison sentences can serve as a much more effective deterrent. Of course, we end up spending a lot less money in this sort of system – lower court costs and lower prison costs! I don’t have the dinglelink, so you’ll have to watch the whole thing if you want to see Kleiman discuss the work, but it’s a great use of time if you find creative suggestions on how to attempt to fix our absurdly broken criminal justic system an interesting use of your time…