The Dead Pirate Bin Laden

Last night I was re-reading the Legal-Affairs essay “The Dread Pirate Bin Laden: How thinking of terrorists as pirates can help win the war on terror”, and it occurred to me that history seems to be repeating itself.

Burgess’ 2005 thesis was that the war against terrorism was failing because international law lacks a definition for terrorism as a crime. He noted that a framework for defining terrorism had already existed for about a thousand years – treating terrorists as pirates, as “hostis humani generis, “enemies of the human race.”

Pirates held a unique status in the law as international criminals subject to universal jurisdiction—meaning that they could be captured and/or killed wherever they were found, by any person who found them.

Burgess saw great similarities between 16th century pirates and current state-sponsored terror groups, and enormous potential benefits of applying this legal definition to contemporary terrorism. The old laws had eliminated piracy as a scourge for hundreds of years.

By the 16th century, piracy had emerged as an essential, though unsavory, tool of statecraft. Queen Elizabeth viewed English pirates as adjuncts to the royal navy, and regularly granted them “letters of marque” (later known as privateering, or piracy, commissions) to harass Spanish trade.

It was a brilliant maneuver. The mariners who received these letters, most notably the famed explorers Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, amassed immense fortunes for themselves and the Crown, wreaked havoc on Spanish fleets, and terrorized Spain’s shoreside cities. Meanwhile, the queen could preserve the vestiges of diplomatic relations, reacting with feigned horror to revelations of the pirates’ depredations. Witness, for example, the queen’s disingenuous instructions saying that if Raleigh “shall at any time or times hereafter robbe or spoile by sea or by lance, or do any acte of unjust or unlawful hostilities [he shall] make full restitution, and satisfaction of all such injuries done.” When Raleigh did what Elizabeth had forbidden—namely, sack and pillage the ports of then-ally Spain—Elizabeth knighted him.

This precedent would be repeated time and again until the mid-19th century, as the Western powers regularly employed pirates to wage secret wars. After a series of draconian laws passed by George I of England effectively banished pirates from the Atlantic, the Mediterranean corsairs emerged as pre-eminent maritime mercenaries in the employ of any European state wishing to harass another. This situation proved disastrous. The corsairs refused to curtail their activities after each war’s conclusion, and the states realized that they had created an uncontrollable force. It was this realization that led to the Declaration of Paris in 1856, signed by England, France, Spain, and most other European nations, which abolished the use of piracy for state purposes. Piracy became and remained beyond the pale of legitimate state behavior.

IF THIS CHRONOLOGY SEEMS FAMILIAR, IT SHOULD. The rise and fall of state-sponsored piracy bears chilling similarity to current state-sponsored terrorism.

The mid-19th century that saw the end of state-sponsored piracy in the Paris Declaration. It also saw the end of slavery in the Americas and the European Revolutions of 1848 (also known as the Spring of Nations). Is it a coincidence that the terrorist/state enemies of all people are becoming weaker during this season of the Arab spring? Maybe not.

According to Wikipedia, before the 1848 Spring of Nations:

…numerous changes had been taking place in European society throughout the first half of the 19th century. Both liberal reformers and radical politicians were reshaping national governments. Technological change was revolutionizing the life of the working classes. A popular press extended political awareness, and new values and ideas such as popular liberalism, nationalism and socialism began to spring up. Some historians emphasize the series crop failures, particularly those in the year 1846, that produced hardship among peasants and the working urban poor…

The revolutions weren’t immediately successful, but they did inspire some lasting change:

…both Germany and Italy achieved political unification over the next two decades, and there were a few immediate successes for some revolutionary movements, notably in the Habsburg lands. Austria and Prussia eliminated feudalism by 1850, improving the lot of the peasants. European middle classes made political and economic gains over the next twenty years; France retained universal male suffrage. Russia would later free the serfs on February 19, 1861. The Habsburgs finally had to give the Hungarians more self-determination in the Ausgleich of 1867.

Tsarist Russia did not support such revolutions at home, but actively helped the Austro-Hungarian Empire in her war with a restive Hungarian splinter group. Both Britain and Russia opposed Prussia’s plans on Schleswig-Holstein, tarnishing their view among Germany’s liberal nationalists.

The revolutions inspired lasting reform in Denmark as well as the Netherlands. King William II of the Netherlands, afraid that the revolutions might spread into the Netherlands, ordered Johan Rudolf Thorbecke to revise the constitution. Thorbecke’s revision resulted in the king losing most of his powers in favor of the parliament, effectively turning the Netherlands into a Constitutional Monarchy…

For hundreds of years, people tolerated horrific abuses from incompetent, greedy and oppressive royals. They also suffered horrific abuses from the pirates and privateers who worked for the royals and elites. But at some point, they decided, en masse, that they were mad as hell, and they weren’t going to take it any more.

And they changed the world for the better.

Which is what the Arab/Muslim world appears to be doing now.

As I watch the Arab spring progress and the many celebrations of bin Laden’s death, I hope the world continues to party like it’s 1848…


About marypmadigan

Writer/photographer (profession), foreign policy wonk (hobby).
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