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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Pavlov, Pirates, and the Rescue of Captain Richard Phillips

The first recorded hijacking of an airplane happened back in 1932. For nearly seven decades both governments and airlines reacted to hijackings by doing everything to avoid a loss of life including by extension those of the hijackers themselves. It is then no wonder that hijackings increased to a crescendo that climaxed tragically on September 11th, 2001. The hijackers faced relatively little risk if they performed a hijacking.

Ivan Pavlov pioneered the field of classical conditioning. Pavlov's thesis is essentially that both human and animal behavior can be affected by both rewards and punishment. We punish that behavior which we want to end and reward that behavior that we want to encourage more of.

It's in this context that we should view the daring rescue of Captain Richard Phillips. It has been more than two hundred years since an American ship was taken over by pirates. One of the main reasons for this was the reaction of then President Thomas Jefferson against the Barbary Pirates.

Jefferson wanted what he always had, war. It appears that Jefferson, in dealing with the Barbary pirates had decided that it would be cheaper and more beneficial to fight a war than continually to pay homage. President Jefferson had made his entire presidency one that stressed reduced budgets and spending, and the discharge of the public debt. Continuing to pay large ransoms and other gratuities would not achieve this goal; fighting a short decisive war might. Jefferson saw this as an opportunity to advance the goals of his administration, and decided, therefore, to deploy the navy.

Jefferson undoubtedly was mindful of the Constitution's limitations on the President's war powers. In general, Jefferson had favored a strict interpretation of the Constitution, and he knew that as President he was limited to defensive measures without having approval from Congress to act offensively against the Pirates. He was bound by the "chains of the Constitution." Surprisingly, however, these thoughts did not stop Jefferson from dispatching Robert Dale to the Mediterranean, with orders to find out if any or all of the Barbary powers had declared war on the United States. If only the Bey of Tripoli had declared war, Dale was to blockade Tripoli's port. If any other of the Barbary states had declared war, then Dale was to deploy his troops as he saw fit in order to "protect our commerce and chastise their insolence-by sinking,
burning or destroying their ships and Vessels wherever (he should) find them."(19) This order by President Jefferson authorized actions that clearly were beyond the line of "defensive" actions authorized by the Constitution.

When Dale arrived, only the Bey of Tripoli had declared war on the United States. On the first day of August, the Enterprise, one of Dale's ships, came across a Tripolitan ship. The Enterprise engaged the Tripolitan ship in battle, and was victorious. The crew of the Enterprise then stripped the ship and sent it back to port, not sinking it or taking prisoners. Dale's orders had, however, authorized the taking of prisoners. The Enterprise had not taken any only because it was on a mission for supplies, water specifically, and could not afford to keep prisoners on board. This was a tactical consideration.(20)...

The U.S. had made clear more than two hundred years ago that any act of piracy against our nation would be met with all out war. With that draconian punishment in mind, it should come as no surprise that pirates have stayed away from American ships for more than two centuries. That was untial a few days ago when the Maersk was taken over by pirates.

Had this resolved in anything but each and every pirate killed and the hostage rescued, pirates would have been encouraged to do this again. Captain Richard Phillips wasn't the only one rescued today, but so were all Americans that will travel those waters for years to come.

Now, comes the more difficult part. Piracy has flourished over the last couple years because the punishment has been relatively light while the benefit has been enormous. On dozens of occasions, million dollar ransoms have been paid to pirates. That needs to stop now or more ships will still be taken. The whole entire civilized world must come together on a strategy that hunts these pirates wherever they are. Ralph Peters believes that each pirate must be hanged. That would ensure that future piracy is kept to a minimum. Whatever the response, it must swift and draconian, or piracy will continue to flourish.


Anonymous said...

A technical nit -

Pavlov said nothing about Reward and Punishment. His was the study "association" -- that a natural response can be associated with an external stimulus. It was a number of other psychologists, including B.F. Skinner, who studied reinforcement and punishment.

Anonymous said...

It really is amazing that nobody has gotten around to blockading Somalia yet. Then again, I'm also surprised that Maersk hasn't started arming its crews yet, either.

mike volpe said...

Let me respond to both. First, point taken on Pavlov, however future psychologists also expanded on studies and ideas that Pavlov started. Classical conditioning is a study he started.

As to the Maersk...I actually believe that insurance is higher if there are armed guards and that's something that will need to be addressed in the future.

Anonymous said...

I've heard that Somalis first turned to piracy to drive off ships that were dumping toxic waste in their waters.

In any case, why do you think the Navy made such an effort to make it perfectly clear that Obama personally authorized shooting the pirates?

lougrant70 said...

Pirates have always been considered extraordinary criminals: criminals without a state in fact. That should remind everyone of the Al Qaeda.

Going back to the Roman Republic (and the pirate attack on the port of Ostia) their actions have threatened and often destroyed civil government and the society it protects.

"A New Law Dictionary" said this about "Pirates" (8th ed. 1762): "A Piracy attempted on the Ocean, if the Pirates are overcome, the Takers may immediately inflict a Punishment by hanging them up at the Main-yard End; though this is understood where no legal judgement may be obtained; And hence it is, that if a Ship shall be on a Voyage to any Part of America, or the Plantations there, or a Discovery of the Parts; and in her Way is attacked by a Pirate, but in the attempt the Pirate is overcome, the Pirates may forthwith be executed without any Solemnity of Condemnation, by the Marine Law." (Emphasis added)

I don't think Pavlov has much to say here. It is a simple risk/reward: Some countries pay, some countries fight.

An added thought here: criminal organizations acting in a military manner take the risk, when defeated, of forfeiture of all their rights.

The key behind that forfeiture, however, is a legal proceeding. Those legal proceedings were only granted grudgingly by the Bush Administration. With a long legal history to back harsh punishment for crimes such as 9/11, you'd have thought we would have played to our strength as a society.

Other nations have paid "tribute" to pirates going back to the founding of this republic. The result is they encourage more attacks on their ships. Since the time of Jefferson, this republic has refused to negotiate "tributes" or ransoms. Pirates attacking US shipping are likely to meet force. It is a good policy and should be continued.