Sea piracy off the coast of East Africa is a growing problem. It has been for a while, actually.
There were 111 pirate attacks off Somalia's coast in 2008 — double the number of attacks in 2007.
So far in 2009, there have already been 68 pirate attacks near Somalia. At the moment, Somali sea pirates are holding approximately 20 vessels and 300 people captive.
Despite the sharp increase in attacks since '07, it's only in recent days that Americans have finally begun to notice piracy. That's because Americans typically need a sympathetic, preferably telegenic protagonist before they can relate to big issues.
Remember, it took the death of singer Karen Carpenter for Americans to finally acknowledge the pervasiveness of severe, deadly eating disorders among women and girls.
It wasn't until the death of hunky actor Rock Hudson that the American public and, more crucially, the Reagan administration, finally began to pay serious attention to the AIDS epidemic.
And if not for heroic US Airways pilot Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, Americans might not have ever realized that Canadian geese are neither cute nor lovable, but in fact winged sentries of Satan.
The sympathetic victim that made Americans finally notice piracy was Richard Phillips, the heroic and hirsute captain of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama.
On a mission to deliver aid to needy Africans, Phillips was kidnapped after his boat was pirated on April 8. Since his heroic rescue by a group of adorable-but-deadly semi-aquatic mammals dubbed "Navy Seals" by the Pentagon, TV talking heads and columnists have been publicly discussing how the U.S. might be able to thwart piracy.
No one asked me, but if Obama put me in charge of "Operation Hook-hands Into Plowshares," here's what I'd do:
1) First, stop referring to Somalia as a "failed state." Many Somali pirates are teenage boys. We all know how moody and status-hungry teenagers can be. The low self-esteem associated with living in a failed state is clearly causing them to act out. Instead of calling Somalia failed, how about something nicer, like "differently successful"?
2) In recent years, European and Asian fishing fleets have destroyed coastal Somalia's fish stock through illegal harvesting, destruction of reefs, and the mass-dumping of industrial pollutants. With fishing no longer a viable living, the Somali coastal towns that used to be fishing villages have become pirate bays.
Salting fields to make it impossible to grow food has been acknowledged as an act of war since the Old Testament (see Book of Judges, Chapter Nine). Destroying fisheries is no different. The U.S., E.U. and U.N. should treat the destruction of Somali fish stocks with the same seriousness it would treat terrorists or rogue states if they poisoned American and European food supplies.
Pirates are just about the only people in Somalia making money these days. The civilian populations of many coastal towns rely indirectly on the piracy economy to stay alive. Furthermore, they're ticked off at the rest of the world for trashing their fish supply. Let's stop pissing these people off with our criminal behavior. Remember, you can't spell pirate without irate.
3) Place 12 American cruise ships with fully stocked, all-you-can eat buffets off Somalia's coast. Half of Somalia's pirates will die of E. coli within six months. The other half will be too obese or hungover to work as pirates anymore.
4) Somali piracy almost completely stopped for six months in 2006. Not coincidentally, it was the same six-month period during which Somalia was ruled by a union of Islamic courts. Awful people, for sure — but it was the closest thing to a real government Somalia has had since 1991.
As part of its War on Terror™, the Bush administration paid neighboring Ethiopia to send in its army to remove the Islamists from power. They succeeded, plunging Somalia back into anarchy. Surprise, surprise — piracy returned.
The U.S. needs to encourage stability in Somalia — even if that means making peace with nasty, Islamist tribal leaders. Yes, these governments can be vicious, but not as vicious as the war and anarchy that followed their overthrow.
5) Cyanide-laced eye-patches.