Weekend Discussion

Saturday, April 11th, 2009

Here’s a question: The U.S. and most western governments generally have a policy of not negotiating with kidnappers, terrorists, and the like. The thinking is that you don’t want to reward criminal behavior, and you want to avoid setting a bad precedent so you don’t induce future incidents. That probably makes sense as a national policy. But it stinks if you happen to be one of the people kidnapped. Or related to them.

Let’s say Somali pirates take over a private vessel owned by Americans, and ask for a $1 million ransom for the safe return of the crew.

If they’re able to raise the money, should the family, friends, and/or corporation that owns the vessel be permitted to pay the ransom?

Or should we let the government step in and forbid them from paying it?

If you’re in the latter camp, what criteria would you apply in deciding when to let the government step in? Should the government be empowered to forbid paying a ransom in any kidnapping? Just kidnappings that have national security implications? Only overseas kidnappings?

Suppose the crew’s families somehow managed to pay the ransom, anyway. Should we put someone in prison for paying to remove a loved one from harm?

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37 Responses to “Weekend Discussion”

  1. #1 |  Mop | 

    Allow the family to pay, then hunt them down after the crews away. Nothing says don’t do it again like a 500# bomb sinking a pirate ship

  2. #2 |  World B. Free | 

    Apparently, given the perfidy (and treason) of Reagan’s operatives before his first election, the dividing line is: if there is something you want at stake. I’m guessing arms and cash qualify as ransom.

  3. #3 |  Bob | 

    The stupid part is that merchant ships aren’t allowed to carry weapons.

    As long as ships are floating, defenseless loot bags, criminals will capitalize on that.

    If a merchant ship had the means to sink a pirate vessel, that would give them a serious advantage. Pirates can’t sink the merchant ship for obvious reasons (No ship, no crew… no possibility of a payoff)

    In the example I think you’re referring to… a 17,000 ton commercial vessel that had it’s captain kidnapped. A couple of several inch bore deck guns would have made that ship virtually invulnerable to pirates.

    Paying pirates to capture defenseless people is about as stupid as trying to put out a fire with gasoline.

  4. #4 |  James D | 

    #1, don’t start a conversation you can’t prove.

    The part that pisses me off is that when the captain jumped in the water and tried to swim away, there should have been four bullets put into his captors. The Seals could have and should have been ready for something like that to happen. Maybe Obama should fly our there (with 12 teleprompters) and try to ‘negotiate’ with them?

  5. #5 |  UCrawford | 

    Ransom payments should be allowed by the family or corporation. After all, a great many executives and companies take out insurance just for that very contingency.

    And I completely agree with Bob about merchant ships…the right to defend one’s property against violent attack should be a no-brainer.

  6. #6 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    Our national policy should be that any nation that harbors kidnappers, pirates, or terrorists gets it in the neck. No distinction between nations that sponsor such parasites, nations that simply permits them, and nations that are unable to stop them; if you host them we clobber you, unless you come to us first for help. Historically speaking this is one of the most effective uses of that old standby Gunboat Diplomacy. it is straightforward enough for even the most Islam-addled fanatic to comprehend, and it works far more often that more fashionable styles of diplomacy. It isn’t nice, hands-clean, and morally superior, so the Left will hate it. On the other hand it would go a long way toward stopping cold the depressing spread of barbarism.

    That said, if private corporations or citizens want to try paying ransom while the government prepares the hammer-blow, fine.

  7. #7 |  Bernard | 

    Instinctively it feels as though the payment of ransoms by private citizens should be legal. I can’t see any reason why not.

    However if, as I suspect most of us agree, the government shouldn’t be involved in the decision then they should also not be involved in the communication, the safe delivery and receipt of the ransom or any consequences should the kidnappers fail to pay.

    A situation in which ransoms could be privately paid but with implicit government security, expertise, manpower and backing would be analogous to the current banking system where the taxpayer ends up footing the vast majority of the bill unwillingly.

  8. #8 |  Howlin' Hobbit | 

    Is this daft law against arming merchant vessels a US-only thing or is it part of some international maritime law?

    I’m down with Bob (#2). If the ship put a 3″ inch shell somewhere amidships of the attacking boat the survivors are apt to give serious thought to a change of vocation.

  9. #9 |  Bruce | 

    Re #3
    I thought the same thing, except today the paper had a picture of the lifeboat. I should have realized, I’ve been trained in these things. It is actually a fully enclosed fiberglass boat. There is no way to see inside it. It is designed to pack a multitude of people inside and then launch from the deck of the ship. The snipers would have no targets and the underwater SEAL team would not be able to ‘pop’ the boat and sink it. They are tough, designed to stay afloat in very high seas.

    The lifeboats for use on oil platforms are even cooler, many of them are designed to free fall from the platform into the water, thus helping shoot them away from a buring platform and flaming oil on the water. That must be one heck of a disney ride. For obvious reasons, safety drills stop short of actually launching the boat into space.

    All that aside, the government has no business preventing a private contract to go forward between citizens and the hostage takers.

    What we need are some Q-ships plying the waters.

  10. #10 |  ktc2 | 

    Government should not be involved in any type of ransom.

    Merchant ships definitely should be allowed to defend themselves and their property.

    Last resort, any ship taken over by pirates should be sunk by air strike. It should be in the personnel contracts if your ship is taken by pirates/terrorists you will be sunk by the nearest ship/aircraft, thereby all parties must agree to it in advance or find someone else who will. It’s very similar to the contracts prison guards have to sign about prison takeovers.

  11. #11 |  chance | 

    “The stupid part is that merchant ships aren’t allowed to carry weapons.”

    “Is this daft law against arming merchant vessels a US-only thing or is it part of some international maritime law?”

    As far as I know, there is no such law. (If I am wrong, please provide the link). Merchant ships are free to arm themselves with small arms if they see fit, and while I’m not sure about deck guns, I’m betting there is no regulation or law against that.

    The main reason that merchant ships do not carry many weapons and fight off pirates more often is that cooperation and negotiation is seen as the less risky alternative to fighting. If a shipping line pays off pirates, it might not even report the incident to the IMB, which means their insurance premiums stay low.

    Sure, it sucks to lose a few thousands (or more) paying a ransom, but when you consider that the cargo on the ship is likely worth millions, and that even a small jump in insurance premiums for hundreds of ships could cost the shipper many more millions, the ransom starts to make more sense. Not to mention that the safest course for the individuals involved is generally not to fight back, but to flee, use evasive maneuvers, radio for assistance, and if boarded barricade themselves in a secure area (fairly easy to do with enough warning). And since most pirate attacks are unsuccessful anyway (they never even board the vessel) the ransom makes more financial sense than investing in deck guns, armed guards, retired SAS teams, and the like.

  12. #12 |  tarran | 


    Ship’s are permitted to carry weapons, while out at sea. Most countries won’t allow armed ships into their ports.

    There are security companies that provide armed guards for the ships; the men and their weapons rendezvous with the ships in the Red Sea and then transit the danger area on board. Once the ship has left the danger area, they rendezvous with a security company boat and the guards get off.

    James D,

    You’re one a boat that’s moving up and down in the waves, aiming at a target on another boat moving up and down with the waves. Guess how accurately you will be able to fire?

    As far as Radley’s question is concerned, any law that jails people for paying a ransom is evil and immoral – meaning that it would be something right up the U.S. Congress alley.

  13. #13 |  Hut | 

    Sounds like a public good problem, the public good being the safety of the sea for merchants. The more that people pay ransoms, the more incentive there is for pirates, which lead to more dangerous conditions for merchants. Not allowing people to pay ransoms would decrease or eliminate the incentive for piracy. Same goes for kidnapping and terrorists.

  14. #14 |  Elroy | 

    As a practical matter, perhaps returning to the issuing of “letters of marque” might be a better solution to having merchant vessels arm themselves or having the Navy patrol all the coastlines that would be necessary. Of course the privateers will be SOBs too but they will be our SOBs. Some might even be former (or for that matter current) pirates. Still society today does not seem to tolerate the measures that would be necessary to effectively deter piracy.

  15. #15 |  Matt D | 

    You’re one a boat that’s moving up and down in the waves, aiming at a target on another boat moving up and down with the waves. Guess how accurately you will be able to fire?

    Right. Also there’s the expense of the guns, training, maintenance, etc, and probably in some cases lost cargo capacity.

    Our national policy should be that any nation that harbors kidnappers, pirates, or terrorists gets it in the neck.

    Okay. And what does “get it in the neck” mean to a nation like Somalia?

  16. #16 |  perlhaqr | 

    KTC: Way to put the cost for criminal activity on the victims. Go you.


    As Tarran says, the issue is having the guns in port. Most countries are fucking retarded about it.

    Tarran: As for the “hitting a moving object” bit, well, I imagine a radar targetted CIWS pod costs less than one of these ransoms.

  17. #17 |  Lloyd | 

    Once you start paying ransoms, you’ll never stop. The Somali pirates should be told that if they release the captain immediately, their lives will be spared. Otherwise: *Boom!* goes their lifeboat. And their hometown.

  18. #18 |  James D | 

    Why not swim under the boat, put a hole in it and swim away? My guess is that once they are sinking, the pirates might care a bit less about their ransom. I don’t think a Seal team would have any trouble with the moving boat, but I didn’t realize it was ‘enclosed’. All the footage the news keeps showing is of ‘open’ boats.

  19. #19 |  chance | 

    Here is more information on piracy (statistics and such):


    The map is pretty interesting.

  20. #20 |  Sean | 

    Yea, supporting the argument that Tarran said, that merchants don’t have arms due to the multitude of national laws they have to comply with across the globe.

    Also, there are tons of executive kidnappings going on in the world right now. You just don’t hear about it. I would imagine a decent number are American citizens. Hard to imagine we’d make criminals out of their families.

    I’ve actually met an ex-sailor out here in Asia whose ship was boarded by pirates. He was then working as a taxi driver. He claimed that he would rather have not had guns on board, as they had no warning against them before they boarded (their boats went under the radar system).

  21. #21 |  Ganja Blue | 

    I’ve just started Conceived in Liberty, by Rothbard. It covers piracy and maritime commerce in the 16th and 17th century, and I highly recommend it. It is patently absurd for us not to expect unarmed, unescorted vessels to travel open seas in safety. The crews of the ships have not only a right, but an obligation to protect themselves in the event of attack. It is immoral for the shipping companies to expect protection at the expense of the taxpaying public. This is a merchantilist scheme (corporate welfare) that should have died 200 years ago. Travel on the high seas is a private business risk and the recovery of vessels and crew should also be a private venture. We’ve forgotten history and as a consequence we are repeating it.

  22. #22 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    I wouldn’t trust the government to wipe my ass, so I think you know my position on this.

  23. #23 |  ktc2 | 


    The cost of securing the vessels does belong with the victim. It’s their responsibility, and should be their right to do so.

    It’s not my (or other taxpayers) financial burden to provide security for shipping companies.

  24. #24 |  Peter | 

    This isn’t the exact model on the Maersk Alabama, but it should give you an idea of the type of lifeboat being used


  25. #25 |  Dave | 

    Don’t prevent them from paying the ransom, but try to resolve the situation before the ransom is paid.

  26. #26 |  Stormy Dragon | 

    Even several inch deck guns aren’t necessary. These pirates aren’t attacking from large heavily armed ships that can suppress merchant ships from a distance. All you really need is point defense to repel their boarding craft. In most cases just a bunch of .50 cal machineguns would be enough to dissuade these pirates.

  27. #27 |  Brian | 

    I’m going to go with: Allow the merchant ship to carry arms. They don’t need to have a friggin’ giant cannon like a Naval vessel, but enough fire power to take out a pirate boat would be handy and reasonable.

    BTW, the US isn’t officially a party to the Law of the Seas Treaty, so I’m not even sure if these rules technically apply to ships flying our flag (then again, I am also not sure that the Maersk vessel was registered in the US).

  28. #28 |  Dr. T | 

    I don’t see an issue here. A privately owned vessel is hijacked in the open seas. No government has jurisdiction over the vessel. No government should be able to stop the vessel owners and the relatives and friends of the hijacked crew from negotiating with and paying ransom to the pirates. (I prefer the counter-threat of anti-ransom: return the crew unharmed and we WON’T put million dollar bounties on each of your heads. Of course, that only works if you can identify the pirates.)

    I also believe merchant vessels should be armed, but I understand the reasoning for being unarmed. (Every port has its own rules about weapons on vessels, and locking weapons away usually isn’t acceptible to gun-fearing wussies.)

  29. #29 |  Travis | 

    I’m not sure if this is a hypothetical question, but I’ve found no evidence that it’s actually illegal to pay ransom, even though the U.S. government has a policy of not negotiating with kidnappers. I suppose somebody could be charged with giving money to a terrorist organization, but I don’t see that happening in this case.

  30. #30 |  Matt D | 

    I’m not sure if this is a hypothetical question, but I’ve found no evidence that it’s actually illegal to pay ransom, even though the U.S. government has a policy of not negotiating with kidnappers.

    Seriously. There seems to be an assumption here that the government is a) preventing vessels from defending themselves and b) preventing individuals from paying ransom, even though neither seems to be the case.

  31. #31 |  James D | 

    Thanks Peter … that thing looks like a damn submarine, not a boat.

  32. #32 |  Tokin42 | 

    I get to be the contrarian again. I lean towards the belief that by paying the ransom the familiy/corporation is putting more people at risk in the future. What gives them the right to exacerbate the problem? If the government is going to be asked to step in and help when a pirate takes over a ship, then the company is going to have to abide by what is in the best interest of those paying that bill, the taxpayers as a whole.

  33. #33 |  Cornellian | 

    I don’t think there’s a law against arming civilian ships. I think the reason they’re not armed is that insurance companies prohibit arming them as a condition of getting insurance, and because some ports will not allow armed ships to dock.

  34. #34 |  James D | 

    Well it looks like after missing the first attempt, someone in the military was finally able to talk Obama into sending in the Seals.

  35. #35 |  Shane Haithcock | 

    Hey Radley, I think we can say this worked out okay, huh? I think we sent the clear message not to kidnap American Citizens! They paid the ultimate price for their misjudgment.

    I’m just surprised Obama didn’t fly over there to talk to them. He’s willing to talk to everybody else. Maybe he was on the tonight’s show?! :)

  36. #36 |  Wavemancali | 

    To all lamenting about the cost of protection being borne by the victim, I think you are making a ridiculous argument. The potential victim always pays for the appropriate protection in life. If you are a bank moving money, you pay for the armed guards, if you are a jeweler moving diamonds, you pay insurance on the merchandise and make sure potential thieves don’t know when you are moving stock.

    Slow moving ships off the coast of lawless countries are the equivalent of walking through a bad neighborhood flashing a huge roll of cash and wearing expensive jewelry.

    Either pay for the appropriate protection, get kidnap and ransom insurance or be prepared to lose your property.

    Within the 200 mile boundary of the coast African nations, foreign warships must be acting with the consent of the nation’s government. Within that boundary, the US has no say in what a family can or cannot do to pay a ransom, and outside that boundary, there are no national laws, so what the US government says does not apply either.

    I see no way that the US government could possibly prohibit the actions of the family members and think that they have a legal leg to stand on. They simply do not have jurisdiction and there is no way you could have a “floating embargo” style policy that made sense.

  37. #37 |  Bigmix | 

    There is a terrific documentary you can watch online at Netflix (with an account, of course) called Manda Bala. It takes a very in-depth look at the economy of kidnapping in Brazil, especially Sao Paulo. The problem is that kidnapping is a cottage industry in the slums because money can be so easily taken from families of kidnap victims. If we allow private citizens to determine American foreign policy, pirates will find a much more success demanding ransom for humans than for cargo.