Here’s a thought that’s been bugging me … a day rarely passes without some mention of another giant ship (or two or six) being hijacked by Somali pirates who arrive in tiny skiffs. The maritime Davids are so successful, apparently, because the Goliath-sized ships they attack are unarmed, while the pirates carry rifles and rocket powered grenade launchers.

Scores of sailors have been held hostage, many remain captive, and some have been killed. Many millions of dollars have been paid as ransom to the pirates, who have to share most of the money with shady investors who front the money for boats and gas, guns and ammo.

It’s often noted that the piracy problem is rooted in the instability of Somalia, which has had no effective government for years. If the country can be lifted above its “failed state” status and a functioning government put in place, things like a police force and Coast Guard could follow. We long for that day.

In the meantime, there seems to be a relatively obvious solution to the piracy problem: equip the ships with well-armed security guards. Navy vessels from a number of countries including the U.S., Germany, and China have been diverted to patrol the waters, leading to surprising moments of cooperation, as when a South Korean destroyer recently deployed a helicopter to rescue a ship from North Korea.

Even so, Somalia’s coast is so vast (longer than California’s) and the pirates are willing to venture so far from shore (hundreds of miles), that warships just can’t always be close enough to help. If each ship carried a few well-trained and well-equipped security people, however, military craft wouldn’t need to be so close.

I’ve heard arguments for why ships don’t simply arm their crews. Although I suspect the custom of sailing unarmed grows mainly from a fear of mutiny, it’s usually said that the sailors have no military training, are not interested in fighting, and would have to be paid a lot more if expected to risk their lives.

There are, however, lots of folks who are highly skilled, armed to the teeth, and itching for a fight. Many of them also happen to be unemployed, like the pirates. Private military contractors like North Carolina-based Blackwater Worldwide — which recently changed its name to Xe (pronounced “zee”) after some unfortunate and/or scandalous incidents in Iraq — could provide small security forces who would be more than a match for a few Somalis in a speedboat. They wouldn’t come cheap, I’m sure, but a few hundred Benjamins per trip would probably be quite cost-effective compared to the option of going around the Horn of Africa or paying millions in ransom.

I’m not one who promotes violence, but I suspect putting professional guards on commercial vessels would lead to a reduction in bloody conflicts. The pirates appear to scare easily, and if it should become known that each ship is equipped with lethal snipers wearing night-vision goggles, I suspect a lot fewer pirate boats would come within grappling-hook distance.

The solution I’m nattering about seems so obvious that there must be some good reason why it hasn’t been tried already. I suspect some countries may not allow armed ships into port, but it wouldn’t be that hard to have an official board the ship to make sure weapons had been secured before docking. Does anyone know other reasons why commercial ships don’t — or shouldn’t — carry security guards?

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