The results of last week's hostage-taking off the coast of Somalia could not have been neater.
The hostage, captain of a merchant ship that Somali pirates had attempted to hijack, had offered himself up to save his crew. The ship was carrying food aid. The United States Navy and the FBI showed the kind of patience necessary to get the good guy home alive and applied exactly the right amount of force at the appropriate time. The president gave permission to act if the captain's life was in immediate danger, and according to news accounts, providence complied with evidence of that along with clear shots at all three pirates remaining in the lifeboat with Capt. Richard Phillips. Navy SEAL snipers using night-vision scopes demonstrated the skill for which they are famous, killing all three. The fourth, who had surrendered earlier in exchange for medical treatment, remains in custody. No one else was harmed.
On behalf of the United States, the Navy has made an important point. Unfortunately, solving the problem of piracy is going to be a lot tougher than saying, "Look what happens when you mess with us." The tidy scenario of last weekend is unlikely ever to be duplicated.
Immediately, a pirate holding a Greek ship responded, "Every country will be treated the way it treats us. In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying."
Treating Somali pirates (and their brethren in other regions) in the way they treat others still leaves considerable latitude for using force against them, but the message is clear: Pirates are prepared to kill Americans. Let's not forget that pirates have never had any qualms about killing Americans. They did not kill Capt. Phillips because, up to now, they have been kind and charitable people, but because their own lives depended upon their ability to display him, alive and fairly well, to the U.S. Navy.
Somalia is in chaos, in ways almost unimaginable in the developed world. No one is in control in any meaningful way, let alone to the extent required to eliminate piracy. It should be no surprise that some people have stepped forward to capitalize on the opportunities that lawlessness provides, nor that the pirates are viewed as heroes by some of their countrymen. Business is good, because shipping lines have been willing to pay millions in ransom for their vessels, crews and cargo.
Naval forces have yet to coordinate an effective strategy to deter piracy, partly because of the maneuverability of small boats and partly because of the vast reaches of open water involved. The United States has been occupied elsewhere, and thus far the problem has been only a small annoyance to ships flying U.S. flags. The American public generally has wanted its Navy to focus on larger threats.
A small part of the problem is the label. Thanks to Peter Pan and Johnny Depp, "pirate" conjures an image of a hearty, if slightly sinister, seaman with an earring, an eye patch, a parrot and at least one makeshift prosthesis. There are other, less romantic terms to describe people who terrorize shipping channels and who provoke governments to deploy military forces in defense of their citizens.
That is the spectrum on which piracy needs to be viewed. The proper response to the threat to capture and kill more Americans is not to say, "Oops, sorry." A cooperative multinational force must take firm steps - of which this weekend's was the first - to counter those threats with action.