The three movies that have so far been released in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series have grossed about $2.7 billion in worldwide ticket sales and another $615 million in DVD sales in the United States alone. The antics of Johnny Depp’s character have also spawned Disney theme park rides, spinoff novels and video games, and countless other adaptations and promotions. This celebration of outlaws has delighted millions of movie-goers and generated handsome profits for the (Western) world’s entertainment complex since 2003.
But no such amusement was triggered by modern-day, real-life pirates some 8,000 miles away, off Somalia. After a U.S. captain was captured and held for ransom, a media frenzy ensued. Celebrity columnist Tom Friedman bemoaned that we live “In the Age of Pirates.” Calls for stepped-up military intervention to confront the rising threat of piracy grew more insistent. In fact, a militarized response has been in the making for some time. In August 2008, Combined Task Force 150—a multinational force set up under the aegis of the “war on terror”—was tasked with patrolling the Gulf of Aden. The UN Security Council adopted French-drafted Resolution 1838, endorsing air and naval attacks against acts of piracy.
Western commentators express bewilderment at the fact that instead of being suppressed, piracy seems to be spreading, with more daring ship takeovers farther from the Somali coast. Not only is there an unwarranted faith in military solutions, but much of the media coverage also conveniently sidesteps the broader context. Outside intervention has long succeeded in creating greater misery for ordinary Somalis:
Under dictator Mohamed Siad Barre (who held power from 1969 to 1991), large amounts of weapons were supplied first by the Soviet Union and, after Somalia and its rival Ethiopia switched superpower patrons in the late 1970s, by the United States. After the dictator’s fall, U.S. weapons were captured by ruthless warlords. The ensuing anarchy helped lead to an ill-fated U.S./UN intervention in the early 1990s.
In late 2006, the Bush administration encouraged Ethiopia to invade Somalia in order to overthrow the Islamic Courts Union, even though the ICU had finally re-established a degree of calm and order. And as analyst Bill Hartung noted in January 2007, “the U.S. has been a central player in the Somali civil war” by backing anti-ICU warlords, providing arms and intelligence to Ethiopian forces, and trying to kill ICU leaders with AC-130 gunships.
Part of the rationale of foreign intervention off Somalia is to protect fishing boats from piracy. Arguably, however, foreign (mostly European and Asian) fishing fleets there are essentially illegal (since there is no functioning government that can regulate activity in Somali waters). Growing numbers of local fishermen have been impoverished. The value of the poached fish is perhaps three times as much as pirates garner in ransom payments.
There is also evidence that toxic and nuclear wastes have been dumped off the Somali coast by European companies as far back as the early 1990s. Johann Hari explains that “Somalian fishermen took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least levy a "tax" on them. […] No, this doesn't make hostage-taking justifiable, and yes, some are clearly just gangsters – especially those who have held up World Food Programme supplies.” Hari quotes one of the pirate leaders, Sugule Ali: “We don't consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas.”
Confronted by the naval might of the world’s leading powers, Somalia’s pirates have shown themselves to be resourceful and cunning. But they are no match for the industrialized world’s media and entertainment complex that one moment glorifies celluloid make-believe pirates and another takes great care to gloss over the reasons for very real modern-day piracy in one of the world’s most destitute areas.