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A couple weeks ago, Somali pirates hijacked a cargo ship with 20 American crew members on board. Thank God and the Navy Seals that they all got out alive. But will Americans be so lucky next time?

During 2008 alone, these thugs raided more than 130 vessels, resulting in 50 successful hijackings and millions of dollars paid in ransoms. With at least five well-organized pirate gangs, including Islamic extremists like the Shabaab militia (a group comparable to African Taliban), all seeking and splitting the spoils of these sea traders, isn’t it time America better protects our merchant mariners in volatile areas like the coast of Somalia? Isn’t it time they are armed with better deterrents than fire hoses, rubber bullets and sonic weapons? Isn’t it time our Navy Seals reach land and cut pirates off at the pass?

Ransoms only enable these hooligans. And negotiations never work with them. We need to cut them off so that no one else goes missing in action. For proof of that, we only need to look back and learn from our revolutionary predecessors. They not only demonstrated how we need to rescue our citizens, but then instill the notion within these pirates that America will never appease or tolerate captors, and we will never pay their ransoms again.

Some might not know America has been dealing with African marauding mariners since its inception. Though it’s not a direct parallel, I believe we need to do as Thomas Jefferson did during the Barbary Powers Conflict, a confrontation between Muslim extremists or pirates from the five Barbary nations (Tripoli, Turkey, Tunis, Algiers and Morocco) and what they considered the “Christian nations” (England, Denmark, France, Spain and the new United States).

While the United States was mopping up from the Revolutionary War, it was also squaring off against largely Muslim pirates in the Mediterranean. These sea bandits cruised the coastlines stealing cargo, destroying villages and enslaving millions of Africans and hundreds of thousands of Christian Europeans and Americans. Because America was a newborn nation, we had a relatively little naval defense. Our rebellion against Britain severed our protection by the Royal Navy. And while France helped during the war, the United States was on its own as of about 1783. And so our merchant ships were exceptionally vulnerable to attack in and out of the Great Sea. As a result, our cargo and seamen were captured, and our country’s leaders were forced to negotiate with the Barbary pirates.

In 1784 envoys were dispatched to secure peace and passage from the Barbary Powers. Treaties were made. Tributes and ransoms were paid. Our cargo and captives were freed. And our ships traveled safely. But over the next decade and a half, millions of dollars were given to these radicals – estimated at 20 percent of America’s federal budget in 1800! (Despite that men like Thomas Jefferson argued vehemently against paying ransoms and tribute – he believed the only road to resolution would be “through the medium of war.”)

America’s first four presidents (Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison) each dealt with this East-West conflict of powers to varying degrees. Though numerous negotiations and treaties were made, including “the Treaty of Tripoli” in 1796-1797, Tripoli (in present Libya) still declared war against the U.S. in 1801. It is sometimes called America’s first official war as a new nation. The founders believed in a foreign policy of non-interventionism, but Jefferson realized that protecting America’s borders also meant protecting American lives and property overseas.

He confessed to Congress in 1801 that he was “unauthorized by the Constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense,” but he still ordered a small fleet of warships to the Mediterranean to ward off attacks by the Barbary Powers. Marines and warships were deployed to the region, which eventually led to the surrender of Tripoli in 1805. It would take another decade, however, to completely defeat those pirates, or should I say cause them to temporarily retreat until a distant time when they would again attack our country.

America’s victory back then over those sea radicals is commemorated today in the Marine Hymn, with the words, “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli, we fight our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea.”

The voices of our forefathers cry out from the Barbary Powers Conflict in hope of imparting some wisdom to us. As the adage goes, we will either learn from history’s mistakes or be doomed to repeat them.


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