Now that an American ship and crew have been attacked by pirates, the media is stepping up its coverage.
In light of all the other disasters around the globe, the pirate problem is a relatively small one. Of course, it would be preferable to have such activity stop so as to avoid further deaths and economic damage.
One classic solution to pirates to to engage them militarily and “kill the hell out of them” (to use the technical term). This sort of solution was followed by the world powers during the “age of sail.” Although the use of privateers (essentially state sanctioned pirates) was considered acceptable, piracy was considered an offense best punished by death.
One main advantage of this approach is that it has been proven to work. If the world powers sent warships to seriously hunt and kill pirates, this would greatly reduce the amount of piracy in the area. After all, just as dead men tell no secrets, dead men do not commit acts of piracy.
Of course, this approach does have its downside. First, there is matter of killing people. In general, killing people should be avoided. Second, there is the problem of finding and identifying the pirates. After all, they do not cruise in obvious pirate ships-they are just guys in boats. Third, there is the fact that the pirates can simply lay low for a while and wait for the cost of patrolling the area to put and end to the anti-piracy operations. The pirate boats are cheap to operate. Warships are not.
Another way to deal with the pirates is to address a likely cause of their piracy. The pirates are, in general, in it for the money. Since Somalia is a failed state, the people there have little opportunity to earn money in legitimate ways. Hence, the relatively easy money to be had through piracy is very appealing.
To deal with this, the two main options are to offer an alternative source of revenue or make it so that piracy is no longer lucrative.
One way to make it so that piracy pays less is for companies and nations to stop paying ransoms to the pirates. Of course, since the pirates have already been paid often in the past, they will probably not take this change very well. It seems reasonable to expect that some of them will respond with violence-killing some crew members to show they mean business. As such, to make this work now would require having the will (or insensitivity) to allow people to be killed.
In terms of alternative revenue, the pirates could be transformed into a security force. That is, nations and companies could pay some (or all) the pirates to protect the shipping lanes from pirates. In effect, they would be creating a private navy to patrol the area. If the salaries were adequate and there were additional benefits (such as education and other support) many of the current pirates might find such an opportunity appealing.
This would, of course, be a Hobbes’ style solution: going from the state of nature (war) to a state of peace by the use of covenants.
It might be objected that this would be a form of protection money, like paying the Mafia to not break stuff. That is, of course, what it would be. However, ransoms are already being paid and these do not seem to be doing much to alleviate the situation. Nor do such payments seem to be helping to improve Somalia. While it would be quite a long shot, the pirates might be just the place to begin in trying to rebuild that failed state.