Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Pirates: The Maersk Alabama


Walking the plank
Walking the plank
Pirates have been a scourge of seafarers from the dawn of sea travel. When the Cilician pirates of antiquity captured Julius Caesar and held him for what he considered an insultingly low ransom, Caesar demanded a higher ransom be paid, and, once the higher ransom was paid and he freed, chased the pirates down and had them crucified. Histories and romanticized fictions of the golden age of piracy off the Spanish Main, in the Caribbean and along the Barbary Coast of North Africa from the 1500s to the 1700s, have burned the Jolly Roger, walking the plank, buried treasure and host of other colorful, but largely apocryphal, details into the popular imagination. But in fact, pirates were and are violent criminals, outlaw gangs killing or enslaving thousands; even today they remain a real threat to the lives and livelihoods of sailors and shippers, not the swashbuckling rebel antiheroes of fiction.

On April 12, 2009, the most successful pirate raid on a U.S. ship in nearly two centuries ended off the coast of Somalia with the dramatic rescue of Captain Richard "Richie" Phillips, 53, of the M.V. Maersk Alabama, who had volunteered himself as a hostage to keep his crew and cargo safe. U.S. Navy SEALs fatally shot three pirates threatening Phillips with automatic weapons. The complex matter of what to do with a fourth surviving pirate captured earlier would remain to be settled, but Phillips, his ship and his crew were free after a four-day ordeal.

The U.S. Navy's high-seas triumph is just one high-profile chapter of this story, though. The hijacking attempt on the Maersk Alabama was just one of many such crimes perpetrated in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden each year, and the problem is escalating. The rescue of the Maersk Alabama marks a potential turning point: time will tell whether the U.S. will lead the international community in solving the problem of Somali piracy, or whether this episode will be only the first of a series of crimes against American shipping.

In any event, regardless of the resolve of U.S. policymakers, the area's pirates have vowed to avenge their fallen comrades.

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