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A Pirates Life For Me


State-sponsored terrorism is as old as time. Editor in Chief DREW GOWING recalls how Barbary Pirates presaged the Arab Spring in Tripoli, and the predilection of non-state actors in international affairs.

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It was my favorite ride at Disneyland, and for the price of a coveted E-Ticket I could ride and sing along to Walt Disney’s largest audio-animatronic project to date, The Pirates of Caribbean, which has sent an estimated 600 million young buccaneers sailing through its caverns since 1965. In fact, the California attraction has been duplicated in Orlando, Paris, and Toyko making it the single most visited amusement park attraction in the world.

Piracy, by definition, is a war-like act committed by private citizens upon the sea. They're not, the definition continues, affiliated with government, and their duties include but are not limited to robbery, pillaging, rape and the acquisition of property. The British psychologist, John Bowlby, notable for his interest in pioneering the study of child development said, “you can forecast a child’s destiny by tracing their first steps at Disney” and I shutter to think what he may have thought of mine returning again and again to the likes of Jack Sparrow sitting high upon a golden heap of stolen treasure.

The Barbary Pirates, however, of Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli were those who presided upon the Mediterranean Sea. From the 16th century onward, pirates from North Africa began seizing foreign ships and holding their crews and cargo for ransom. And when the United States of America began trading its products and services via the Mediterranean in 1783, Pirates soon captured their ships, impounded their cargo, and imprisoned their motley crews. Thomas Jefferson, then US Minister to France, opposed the ransom and instead conferred a convention of other concerned countries to reason with and “compel the piratical states to peace.” Sadly, the consortium declined reasoning that it was easier to pay a toll than to incur the cost of an international war. And so life on the Mediterranean continued for the next 20 years until Jefferson, that is, in 1801, became President.

By then Tripoli was demanding an annuity of $25,000 per annum for all ships that wished to use the sea, and when Jefferson refused to pay they in consequence declared war. President Jefferson quickly dispatched a squadron of naval vessels to the Mediterranean (without mentioning it to congress) in America’s First Barbary War. Neither the humiliating loss of the US Philadelphia, nor the opposition within his own cabinet deterred Jefferson from the next four years of war, and by his sixth annual address to congress he was able to report “that the states on the coast of Barbary seem generally disposed to respect our peace.” Though subsequent skirmish ensued, the Second Barbary War in 1815 led to a treaty that ended all tributary payments to the Barbary States. The United States of America would never again pay a tax, toll or tariff on the Mediterranean.

Until, that is, the discovery of oil and natural gas reserves in 1959 which led to the transformation of Libya’s economy from a poor country in the Sahara Desert to Africa’s richest, and neatly fueled the military coup led by Col. Muammar Gaddafi a decade later. By the 1980’s the Libyan Arab Republic was now one of the richest countries in the world, and began reasserting its authority on the sea with the largest oilfield and refinery on the Mediterranean. But with wealth came division and by February 2011, the world watched on as protestors along the Barbary Coast toppled their tyrannical governments in what appeared to be an exquisite call to democracy. And when the United Nations declared a no-fly zone in the region, President Barack Obama tagged along the French led coalition (without mentioning it to congress) in what is now America’s Barbary War III.

What isn’t widely known is that the Barbary Corsairs, historically thought to be acting alone, were in fact cohorts to the Ottoman Empire. State-sponsored terrorism is as old as time, and whether in Lebanon, the Caribbean, or in the fragments of Pan Am flight 103 strewn across Lockerbie Scotland, we find the clues of political freedom fighters, infidels, even pirates acting for and in behalf of a powerful and always political realm.

And so as Walt Disney’s now multi-billion dollar franchise including theme park attractions, video games, merchandising, novels, and a series of four films grossing in excess of $2.7 billion reveals, Piracy rules! But in the words of Cpt. Jack Sparrow, “Beware, Mateys. Before you submit to the sea. For there’s no turning back from the plank.”

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