Prairie Schooners transporting goods across the plains are attacked by savage Indians. The cavalry comes to the rescue and slaughters the “tribals.” We all go home feeling safe and proud of our armed forces.
Mutatis mutandi, that’s the basic story of “Captain Phillips” starring Tom Hanks and the splendid Somali actor, Barkhad Abdl. Though familiar in basic plot-structure, the film spins a nonetheless gripping account of the 2009 piracy of the container ship, Maersk Alabama, on the open seas. The ship is waylaid by four Somali ex-fishermen turned pirates. The captain, Rich Phillips, is abducted by the bandits. The Navy Seals are called in. They kill the pirates, rescue the captain. And normalcy returns.
The inattentive will no doubt experience the simple catharsis afforded by such “action thrillers.” However, in the case of “Captain Phillips,” there is more to the story than good guys rescuing the innocent from the clutches of savages. In fact, the story, based on actual events occurring in 2009, has much to tell about globalization, national sovereignty, and the military-industrial complex.
Begin with globalization.
The back story of “Captain Phillips” demonstrates that we’re living through an era of buccaneer business, where multinational corporations act like lawless pirates. They roam the globe and operate where they will, regardless of international law, territorial waters, national boundaries, environmental impact, and the noxious effects their investments might have on local populations.
Somalia provides a case in point. There, overfishing by factory ships from Europe and the United States has left tribal fishermen without income. What fish escape the nets of the giant sea trawlers have been poisoned by toxic waste flushed from container ships off Somalia’s coast. Along with loss of income by local fishermen, plummeting living standards, and otherwise avoidable deaths from poverty and starvation are the predictable results.
This is where national sovereignty comes in.
In the absence of an effective national coastguard, such practices have forced locals to form citizens’ defense groups like the National Volunteer Coast Guard . Initially, these attacked the offending ships to drive them from Somalia’s territorial waters. Though characterized as “pirates” by western media, such groups enjoyed the support of Somalia’s affected population. According to a survey by Wardheer News, about 70% in Somalia’s coastal communities “strongly support[ed] the piracy as a form of national defense of the country’s territorial waters.”
Eventually, such “pirates” discovered that responding in kind to buccaneer businesses (represented by container ships) could itself replace lost revenue from fishing. Whether understood as such or not, “reparations” could in effect be seized by attacking ships on the open seas. There goods could be confiscated and hostages taken in return for large ransoms. Ensuing battles amounted to one highly financed buccaneer business competing against another more primitive, poorly financed counterpart.
Never mind limiting concepts such as open seas, territorial waters, international boundaries, or other legal considerations. From viewpoint of the impoverished “pirates,” if such limitations did not apply to their competitors, neither did they apply to them. It’s all “free enterprise” at its rawest – the law of the jungle, the Wild West, or of Cowboys vs. Indians. As Muse, the “captain” of the pirates attacking the Maersk Alabama put it, “No al-Qaeda here. This is just business.”
But then comes the overwhelming response from the military-industrial complex. Giving the lie to right-wing claims of independence from government, Maersk Shipping demonstrates the ability to call in the Navy Seals to protect its private enterprise operations. As portrayed in “Captain Phillips,” the White House itself is involved. After all, if private firms are threatened, “America’s” credibility is on the line.
Two cruiser ships, their crews of hundreds, several helicopters, and parachuting Seals are all employed to enforce the Law of the Sea on four impoverished “pirates.” This is a law whose rejection by the big-time pirates and their protectors was the root cause of the Somalis’ small-time piracy in the first place.
What to take away from all of this? Myths are powerful. And we should beware of their ability to blind us. Though Hollywood can no longer get away with enforcing such archetypes by portraying Indians as savages, it’s still free to do so with Muslim tribals. After all the West has already been won; there is no longer need to vilify “Indians.”
Muslim tribals are another story. Their resources are still up for grabs.