When I first heard an American ship, the Maersk Alabama, had been attacked by four pirates off the coast of Somalia, I thought I bumped my head and woke up in 1815. And I wondered if these pirates ever really thought they’d get away with a single dollar of ransom money when the biggest, fastest, most powerful maritime fleet in the history of the world — also known as the United States Navy — would be chasing them. As I read more and more about modern Somali pirates, bands of whom have been making millions of dollars holding hijacked ships for ransom, an ugly picture of these four pirates began to emerge and the answer to an age-old question became crystal clear.
To believe that you and three of your friends could actually make money by hijacking an American cargo ship using nothing more than a few AK-47’s and the element of surprise, you’ve got to be young, stupid, high on drugs, or some combination of the three.
As a matter of fact, the four hijackers were all between 17 and 19. As a matter of culture, it’s unlikely they had much (if any) education. And as a matter of custom, Somali men often chew khat, a narcotic leaf that produces an amphetamine-like rush followed by a depressing crash. Basically, we were dealing with the Somalian equivalent of teenage tweakers who dropped out in the ninth grade, so it’s no big surprise that their plan wasn’t very well thought out.
When we think of these pirates as drugged-up high school bad boys, it becomes easier to understand why they made so many mistakes that would have seemed so obvious to anyone who has been around longer than two decades or so. For example, a crewmember stabbed a 17-year-old in the hand when the Alabama was first boarded last Wednesday, despite the fact that the kid was armed with a semi-automatic rifle.
To that crew member, that pirate probably looked more like his son’s friend from little league than a bloodthirsty killer; and when you get to be a certain age, a scared teenager looks like a scared teenager — even if he’s holding an AK-47. You’ve got to be pretty stupid to bring a gun to a knife fight and lose, but that’s exactly what happened. By Sunday morning, when his hand had become infected, this kid was the first one to turn himself in — and I wouldn’t be surprised if the ship’s medic cleaned his wound, dressed it with fresh bandages, and gave him a Popsicle.
The teenager in charge of this ragtag group didn’t do much better. Time after time in decision after decision, he made the wrong call. Even though they had gotten the drop on the Alabama’s unarmed crew, they let the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, convince them to take him hostage, let the crew and the ship go, and try to make their escape (four pubescent pirates and the captain) in an 18-foot enclosed lifeboat. Somehow they got it in their minds that they could negotiate a $2 million ransom for the captain (and their successful escape with the money) from a dinghy. Amazingly, they didn’t tie the captain up at first — a move that was revealed to be a mistake when he jumped into the water and tried to swim to freedom on Friday.
A few days later when the seas got choppy and they began to run out of fuel, food, and khat, they had no choice but to accept the Navy’s offer to tow them. So by Sunday evening, the 18-foot lifeboat was tethered to a 600-foot warship and Navy SEAL snipers had the three pirates’ heads in their sights. Over about 90 minutes, the towline got shortened to 75 feet. Then, in a moment straight out of a Tom Clancy novel, two of the three pirates popped their heads out of a hatch at the exact same time the third pirate was seen pointing his weapon at the captain’s back. Three shots, three kills, and a quick extraction later, the captain was safely aboard the USS Bainbridge — and it was all over. Not since Michael Palin’s Ken in “A Fish Called Wanda” have I seen such total incompetence in a criminal enterprise that it makes a tragic death seem comically predictable. But as hard as I’ve tried, I can’t see with any other way this could have ended.
Which brings us back to that age-old question: would you rather be a pirate or a ninja? I can imagine this may have been difficult to answer 200 years ago when, historically, pirates were at the top of their game. But not now. Today, it’s not even close. The fact that the three pirates left in the lifeboat were all taken out simultaneously by ninja-esque sniper shots to their heads proves the question can only be answered one way. Put simply, a ninja could easily be a pirate, but no matter how hard he tried, a pirate could never become a ninja.
Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider living in Santa Monica who likes John C. Reilly to play the title role in the inevitable “Lifeboat to Somalia: The Richard Phillips Story.” His columns are archived at www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.