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Our View: It will take more than one rescue to stop piracy

Who will play Capt. Richard Phillips when the Maersk Alabama saga becomes a motion picture? Harrison Ford? Russell Crowe? Hollywood won’t ignore this story.

Right now, though, we should worry about the sequel. And that may be less in the hands of Steven Spielberg than in those of someone like Sugule Ali, the spokesman for Somali pirates who were holding a Ukrainian freighter with 33 Russian tanks and other munitions in the hold.

Indeed, the high-seas criminals who use ungoverned Somalia as their base have not curbed their activities just because Navy SEALs rescued Phillips, killing three of his captors and taking a fourth into custody. At least four acts of piracy have occurred along Somalia’s 1,900-mile coastline since Sunday’s heroics.

While the freeing of Phillips was highly satisfying to exasperated Americans, it will not halt the wave of hijackings – 111 last year, more than 75 already this year. The practice is just too lucrative. If anything, says Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting center, the brigands are getting bolder and more desperate.

With all its naval might, the United States has to be cautious about overreacting. We found that out 17 years ago, when dead Americans were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu following a thwarted helicopter action. A land invasion of Somalia, where weapons are abundant and the pirates are often revered because of the money they bring into an impoverished land, anti-American backlash would be likely. And pirates, who blend into the civilian population, are hard to track down.

Private ship owners are wary of arming their crews for fear of provoking pirates and escalating the conflict. They’re less troubled by paying ransom, which has proved relatively successful at getting their crews and ships returned safely. Armed rescue efforts seldom work out as well as Sunday’s did; two days earlier a French attempt resulted in the death of a French hostage.

To business-minded ship owners, the occasional ransom has to be weighed against substantially higher insurance they’d pay on thousands of voyages if their crews carried weapons.

Even so, there may be a lesson in history. In the 1970s, when skyjackers plagued the skies, governments agreed to take a joint stand against them. A variety of strategies were introduced, including airport security measures and random placement of sky marshals aboard commercial flights. Skyjacking is no longer the problem it was three decades ago.

The lawlessness off Somalia cannot be tolerated. But the answer isn’t as simple as blasting a pirate ship out of the water or bombing Somalia. An international response is essential, not a unilateral action, and the lessons learned from the 1970s should be studied for application now.

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