This week’s Mailbag contains just a couple of letters. Both reference our lead editorial from last week.
Last week, our lead piece referenced the sad coincidental timing of the death of a seaman as a result of the continued scourge of Somalian piracy and the introduction of language within HR 2954 which would exempt mariners and the owner, operator or master of these vessels who use force to prevent piracy acts from liability in U.S. courts as a result of those actions. You can read our 11 June editorial, entitled “Timing is Everything” by clicking HERE. Both of today’s letters reference that editorial. Here’s what our readers had to say:
I find it interesting that no one seems to know (or reveal) that, according to one of our Council of American Master Mariners members at Convention in April, some forty percent of all S.I.U. seamen have been trained in small arms to date. Since this member is involved in personnel matters for a very large user, I believe his knowledge is credible.
The above rather blows the idea that U.S. crewmen are untrained in arms usage.
History, of course, tells us that in the age of sail, at least in the 17th century, and possibly later, merchant ships were armed with cannon and all manner of firearms as well as knives and cutlasses. The proposition that crew members cannot be controlled by a master is a specious and unsubstantiated idea. The American seaman today is a far cry from those during the Vietnam and pre-WWII eras.
I certainly applaud the passage of any law that would hold guilt-free a seaman who is protecting himself and his vessel from pirates. We have those laws in Texas and Louisiana for householders who defend their homes from intruders, and the law is effective in reducing break-ins.
The pirates know exactly what they are up to, and they know that the ancient law of death as penalty for piracy exists. Treat them any other way and they will have exactly what they want.
Gary E. Tober, CAPT, USNR ret.,
retired licensed Master, Oceans, US Merchant Marine
and erstwhile original program manager for the Navy Reserve Merchant Marine program
MarEx Editor’s Remarks: The letter comes from a reputable source and contains some facts that I did not know. It also does not change my mind about arming mariners. And, I have no doubt that today’s mariner does not in many ways resemble those personnel who sailed in “the Viet Nam, pre-WWII,” or even the era of just twenty years ago. But, having sailed with many of those who still sail today, I can also speak from a position of authority. The issue of arming mariners goes far beyond competency. The transient nature of all ship’s crews, constantly rotating, sometimes from one ship to another and at odd intervals, is one of the key stumbling blocks. These are not Naval ships. I think that these vessels should be afforded protection, from whatever source. But changing the nature of the merchant seaman’s ultimate mission is a recipe for disaster. The security experts that I have spoken to tell me that coordinated and well-trained “teams” are the answer. How you would make that happen when various members of the team rotated off to vacation and were replaced by a non-team member is a logistical nightmare. Send the armed riding gangs and leave the crews, aside from the well-documented evasive and contingency planning, out of it.
Although HR 2984 goes in the right direction by attempting to remove potential legal liability as an impediment to self-defense, the bill doesn’t strike me as all that helpful. It doesn’t do anything about getting around the significant obstacles in US law (not to mention those in various foreign port state laws) to shipping out with weapons on board. Second, it doesn’t provide any relief for professional security teams or the shipping companies that would hire them, because its protection from liability only extends to the use of force by individuals with MMDs or USCG marine licenses. Finally, although I don’t see a flood of widows of Somali fishermen showing up in the federal court system, the bill wouldn’t stop their litigation, only shift it to inquests into whether particular uses of force were within or without the prescribed standards. While the standards might create a tough burden of proof for the widows, legal defense would require bringing in the Master and various crew members for depositions and then trial. Many a nuisance suit is filed to “extort” a small settlement.
As a separate manner, I can’t say that, as a taxpayer, I’m enthusiastic about making the US Government legally responsible for the acts of “employees” who are not subject to its direct control.
John C. W. Bennett
Chief Executive Officer
Maritime Protective Services, Inc.
MarEx Editor’s remarks: I can’t say that I disagree with the general premise of his comments related to the ultimate effectiveness of HR 2954 as a deterrent to piracy. But, I did say in my editorial that it “was a start.” I still believe that. As we were going on line with the last edition of this e-newsletter, another piece of legislation passed the House (H.R. 2647), which included a Cummings amendment that would require the Department of Defense to protect U.S.-flagged ships at risk of being boarded by pirates. Both measures would be a step in the right direction. But, the writer is correct: the primary obstacles to shipping arms on U.S. flag assets have not yet been removed. Thanks for writing.