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Somalia's piracy problem is everyone's problem

'Arrghh matey' isn't so funny when you know what's at stake.

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Humor has its place, but today's piracy is no laughing matter. Piracy permeates our cultural ethos – it's in children's stories and movies both tragic and comical. In recent months, as pirates off Somalia have proliferated and widened the scope of their capability, newspapers, television newscasts, and bloggers have invariably invoked the terms "arrghh," "avast," and "Pirates of the Caribbean." One essay casually suggested building a Jack Sparrow wing at Guantánamo.

But maritime piracy involves criminal elements using force against innocent prey whose only interest is safe passage. Little more, little less. The problem of piracy is as ancient as when mankind first traversed open waters. Thucydides notes in his history of the Peloponnesian War that piracy was rampant until Minos built a navy to secure the sea lanes. We've mostly endured it until it reached a certain threshold, such as when the US finally sent ships to address the threat to legitimate commerce during the Barbary war in the early 1800s. But recent Somali piracy has caused the international community to take notice. And for good reason.

Pirates have increased the stakes. No longer are just yachts, fishing boats, and small freighters at risk; now there are attacks on cruise ships (the Nautica), military cargo (the freighter Faina), a chemical tanker (the Biscagila), and an oil carrier. The Sirius Star, hijacked last month, contains a reported two million barrels of crude oil. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez, which accidentally grounded in Prince William Sound nearly 20 years ago, could hold 1.2 million barrels and spilled one-third of that, resulting in one of the top environmental disasters.

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