Quid Rides? De te Fabula Narratur

What are you laughing at? The joke's on you.

A Modern Look at the Lex Gabinia

Posted by Anthony on April 21, 2009

By Anthony J. Aschettino

A superpower is confronted with the scourge of piracy, the corsairs threatening to slaughter all citizens of that state when and if they capture them. Sound familiar? It could be the United States in 2009; then again, it could be the Roman Republic in 67 B.C. In both cases, piracy has become a serious enough threat to their interests that the government is being forced to move against it, though with quite possibly differing end-games.

In the Roman case, the Tribune Aulus Gabinius passed a law granting Pompey what essentially amounted to a large military force (both land and sea) and the jurisdiction to go after the pirates until he had crushed them. It took Pompey six months to do the job, and it was done so thoroughly that piracy did not return to the Mediterranean for a few hundred years.

The United States is facing a somewhat similar challenge off the coast of Africa. Although relatively small in numbers, the pirates found there are doing quite a spectacular job of hijacking ships, holding the crews hostage, and acquiring ransom money for the both the vessels and the men. It has become quite the lucrative business, and will probably only become less so when insurance rates for shipping in the area rise so high that the ships will take longer routes in order to simply avoid the area. In the meantime, the pirates have shown their willingness to attack vessels flying any flag without regard to state or creed.

In the case of Rome, the Lex Gabinia invested in one man the power to deal with the pirates. The United States will not do so in those explicit terms, of course, but could instead commit a task force with the authority to end the pirate scourge and provide them the means (ships, predator drones, marines, etc.) to do so. It would be ideal if several states would join in on this campaign, seeing as how the pirates are affecting any ships sailing in the area, but there really aren’t any other states with the naval capacity of the United States.

Eliminating the pirates will be the easy part; after all, given enough resources there is no reason to believe that the United States Navy cannot kill pirates faster than they can recruit replacements and, in any case, constantly seeing one’s comrades sail out to meet their deaths is bad for recruiting. The more difficult issue here is in addressing the cause of the piracy overall, namely the atrocious social and economic conditions in the failed state known as Somalia.

Nobody really wants to do this. The United States is currently stretched rather thin with commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the memories of Mogadishu from 1993 have still not faded away completely. European states are likewise reluctant to get involved because Somalia is seen as a hopeless case on the continent. It would take phenomenal amounts of money along with providing a stable environment for free and fair elections (meaning a military force to keep the peace) in order to help develop the kind of political regime that could make Somalia “work”, and even this is no guarantee: the regional tribalism that plagues the state has shown itself to be more resilient than any one particular government.

At the end of the day, the piracy has to be stopped and the United States is probably the only country with both the means and will to see it done. It should, and must, be eradicated, but unless further issues are addressed regarding the validity of Somalia as a state it will rear its ugly head much more quickly than did those buccaneers who plagued the Romans some two-thousand years ago.

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