Saturday, April 11, 2009

Pirates of the Indian Ocean: Timely Article in Vanity Fair

Since newspapers are either dying (The San Francisco Chronicle) or incredibly slanted (The New York Times and now a rival slant from Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal), and, since no one on television is doing any known form of journalism, (Rachel Maddow? Arrogant, poorly-informed young person of indeterminate gender: Keith Olbermann? Former sportsperson seriously stuck on his own opinions: Lou Dobbs? Mr. Xenophobic-Man-of-the-People. I could go on but why suffer further?) I've been consistently impressed with the high level of reportage in the monthly magazine,Vanity Fair. At least here, one can find well-written, in-depth stories from around the world.

And talk about timely: the April issue features a fascinating and (curiously enough) funny story called "The Pirate Latitudes" in which writer William Langewiesche tells the story of the fancy (is there any other kind?) French cruise ship Le Ponant and its seven days in the hands of Somali pirates a year ago.

The adventure ended well for the French, who now claim to have freed the captives with a commando raid (un peu exaggeration), but who really paid a multi-million dollar ransom (those French!). Following the hostage exchange, a chic Frenchwoman military helicopter pilot sat down to a nice dejuné and then got up in time to scramble her chopper and blow up the pirates' truck on Somali soil, capturing a few of the bad guys for trial in France. (Voilà! Imbeciles!)

With the pirate drama playing out this weekend off the Horn of Africa, with an America captain as hostage, the Vanity Fair article makes informative reading. The khat-chewing pirates (khat is a vegetable form of speed) appear to have their own code of honor, though it is clear throughout the story that one wrong move can turn any modern pirate drama toward serious danger.

Instead, in the case of the Ponant, the handsome and incredibly well-dressed (but of course!) French captain, Patrick Marchesseau, kept his head and helped lead his crew (there were no passengers on board) safely through their seven-day ordeal. The funny part, catalogued by writer Langewiesche, is that the crew kept up its morale by carefully maintaining Gallic culinary standards, eating appropriate sauces and complimentary wine pairings with each languid meal, as the gun-toting pirates looked on. To quote Langewiesche:

"On the first night out, a Sunday, they enjoyed an exquisite dinner of freshly caught bonito. We know about the food because Marchesseau later published a book in France recounting the ship's ordeal, and, as a Frenchman writing for the French, he kept he readers closely informed on matters of cuisine." [For example on the night before the pirates overtook the ship] "Out in the Ponant's aft, open-air restaurant, they had a light salad accompanied by delicately grilled meats, subtly spiced with herbs from Provence." [And later] "The lunch was a delightful meal of salad, potatoes and grilled meats accompanied by a light wine ... "

One question the article does not answer is one that has puzzled me for some time: what criminal organization is behind the pirates? They must have funding and organization: Somalis who don't have enough to eat, and can't afford shoes, don't just suddenly obtain fully-equipped Zodiac speed boats and expensive automatic weapons. Multi-million dollars ransoms can't all be paid in cash, can they be? Someone somewhere must have a bank account full of these illegally-gotten gains and some criminal organization involved must be known to some law enforcement person somewhere in the world.

In the case of the Ponant, the French were thrilled because they captured some of the pirates and took them to France for trial. Quelle punishment! If I lived in a war-torn, poverty-stricken country with no government, even France--even a French jail--would look good to me, so I can't imagine that this form of punishment will act as much of a deterrent. (Please, monsieur, arrest me and take me to Pairee!)

Finding the source of the criminal organization(s) behind the piracy would be a good start at ending this troublesome, highly dangerous, very expensive form of international extortion.

Zero tolerance, and sharpshooters with sniper rifles are my next recommendations. Insurance companies who are paying out these ransoms should be prevented from doing so under international law, and the law should be enforced. (I know, I know, the U.N. isn't exactly capable of this, but someone must be. Anyone?) The only thing less of a deterrent than trials in Paris and French jails serving pomme de terre soufflé would be trials in the United States with jails serving Big Macs and pepperoni pies from Pizza Hut. And I guess, under the current administration, Guantanamo Bay is out, drat it all. Otherwise I'd say put 'em there and then abandon the place and let Castro invade it. There's a deterrant I'd like to see.

FYI: the May issues of Vanity Fair is already out (with a barely clad, Annie Leibovitz-photographed Gisele Bundchen on the cover (good issue, ridiculous cover) so you may have to find the April issue with the pirate story, at your local library.

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Stine Linnemann said...

Sorry this is not so much to this entry.. I just wanted to tell you, that I love the vintage postcards you have on the right side of your blog. Thanks!

Florida Beach Basics said...

clever post, with good analysis of journalism and tv newspeople - too bad they have believers. marge

Robin Chapman said...

This is for Stine Linnemann: If you like old postcards they are everywhere to be found in "antique malls" and dusty old used bookstores in the states. There are also lots of them on line in state archives. The Florida State Archives has a great postcard collection. Thanks for your nice comments!

n.yezhov said...

The French have a non-lethal sound-generating device (mounted on at least one of their cruise ships: see "Active Denial System") used successfully to drive off the bandits in their Zodiacs. Since the shippers, insurance companies and 'humanitarians' are nervous about arming their crews, funding these devices for all ships transiting the area (borrow from China, of course) would help. Killing hundreds of grunts won't stop the Bosses' multi-million dollar operations, but making all vessels unpleasant to approach might help cut down the number of attacks. Also, communications resources based at Diego Garcia may be tasked to identify @ track the pirates' mother ships. That's why God gave us cruise missles and satellite-based targeting. The importance of finding an international - but effective - solution is made clear in NPRs discussion this morning of the down-range possibility of at least transient exploitation of the pirates by al-Qaida. They act out of pan-Islamic theology, not for money per se, but NPR's commentator noted al-Qaida has active elements in Somalia.

Robin Chapman said...

To: N. Yezhov
Or, we might just turn this one over to the Israelis who probably have a few lethal solutions that would solve this problem for good!

Actually, I think the non-lethal solutions have been tried and found wanting. I think merchant ships in the region should be armed which will begin to solve the problem. Next, the big guys who run this thing need to be captured and tried. Where? Good question. How about Saudi Arabia?