Sunday, May 31, 2009

Book Review: Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda

I recently listened to two interviews with Gretchen Peters, author of the recently released book, Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda, on NPR (Fresh Air 5/11/09; Talk of the Nation 5/12/09). Ms. Peters’s contributions to the discussions prompted me to read through her research and interpretations of America’s misguided war on terror, which she claims has almost entirely dismissed heroin trafficking as significant in the Taliban’s and al Qaeda’s rise.

Seeds of Terror relies on Peters’s and her research assistants’ personal time in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as connected countries in the drug trade, such as the United Arab Emirates. She and her team spoke extensively with U.S. government and military personnel, as well as Afghan farmers, police, military, and government officials.

She also sought out interviews with suspected drug traffickers, loosely integrated in and out of the Taliban. Her work was well researched, relying heavily on U.S. military sources, and her willingness to interact with individuals and groups that would not always lend to one’s safety.

I found that Seeds of Terror held three primary contentions.

First, the Taliban and al Qaeda organizations are not simply terrorist groups. Since the 1980s, but increasingly since the U.S. stopped supporting the mujahideen after the Cold War ended, these organizations have relied on poppy harvesting and the production of heroin in order to fund their causes. In turn, the Taliban’s and al Qaeda’s goals are not just ideological. Their goals are grounded equally, if not more so, in drug trafficking and the billions of dollars it generates.

…the definition of Taliban member and drug smuggler is blurring. Taliban help organize farm output in the regions they control, and some commanders even run their own heroin labs.

Today’s battles are more diversionary attacks to protect big drug shipments, rather than campaigns for strategic territorial gain. In many areas, drug smugglers have their own armies whose fighters are widely referred to as “Taliban.”


One thing is clear: as the insurgents get sucked deeper into drugs, commanders are losing ties to ideological roots of the Taliban movement (p. 12).

Peters illustrates throughout her chapters the detailed ways that opium and heroin are produced and trafficked through Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, South Asia, and Western Europe, and how the processes follow typical drug trafficking schemes – money laundering, organizational corruption, regional intimidation, and international banking systems.

Thus, by defining the Taliban and al Qaeda only as ideological terrorists and not drug traffickers, U.S. responses have been futile. I see this as Peters’s second main point – that in its international approach to the war on terror, the U.S. has once again designed efforts that pursue a narrow propaganda-fueled goal of combating terrorism, rather than addressing the multiple problems in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran holistically.

Early in her text, Peters notes that historically, the U.S. government has financed and trained rebel groups in numerous parts of the world to fight our ideological wars, whether they be against communism in the 1980s or against religious fundamentalism in the 21st century. These rebel groups, however, are frequently criminals of other sorts, showcasing that U.S. international approaches to “peace” lack the moral and strategic foresight to actually bring peace and global stabilization.

From Laos to Nicaragua, the CIA’s tendency to get into bed with rebel groups prone to illegal drug smuggling repeatedly landed the agency in hot water and spawned no end of fanciful conspiracy theories (p. 47).

Presently, the approach in the Middle East has been slightly different. Since 9/11, the U.S. has been so fixated on apprehending high-ranking Taliban and al Qaeda officials and impeding the spread of sharia law, we have essentially ignored drug trafficking. In turn, we are allowing the primary means by which ideological terrorists fund themselves to flourish. Thus, while opposition to sharia law is certainly necessary, it is ineffective if the drug trade is ignored.

The third major area addressed by Peters is corruption, which runs rampant throughout virtually every key organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan – the police, government, and military. Drug traffickers sustain the drug trade by manipulating the necessary individuals and small groups within these organizations (it should be noted, the same thing happens in the U.S. and other developed countries).

In our efforts to fight terrorism, we have invested more money into developing Iraq’s infrastructure than revamping more ethical institutions in Afghanistan or Pakistan, which looks good to the American public, but has had deleterious long-term effects.

As such, Peters criticizes the U.S.’s approach to the drug war, which involves eradicating poppy fields. The short sightedness, Peters points out, is obvious – this approach empowers the drug traffickers by victimizing impoverished, already victimized farmers, raising the international value of heroin, and creating more disdain for the U.S. Peters offers tangible suggestions for reform, that primarily involve pursuing high-end drug traffickers in the same way the U.S. is pursuing al Qaeda leaders, such as Osama bin Laden.

One concern with the text lies in a new criminalization of Middle Easterners. No longer cast as potential terrorists, Middle Easterners will now carry the additional harmful label of drug trafficker, smuggling heroin and/or other illegal goods across their own regions, South Asia, and western Europe. In the wake of 9/11 and the multiple conflicts that have ensconced U.S.-Middle Eastern relations for decades, Seeds of Terror unintentionally adds another dimension of the Middle Eastern “threat” to mainstream western minds (see McAlister, 2001).

Further reading:
Afghanistan: Farmers face poppy dilemma

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Youth Violence in Chicago: Over-emphasis on Enforcement

NPR ran a story yesterday on the high levels of youth violence, specifically gun/gang violence, in Chicago ("Youth Killings Reach Crisis Level in Chicago"). From the story:

So far this school year, at least 36 Chicago Public School students have been killed, most of them victims of gunshots. Scores of other Chicago children and teenagers have been wounded in shootings, and there are concerns that the gun violence could escalate when school is out for the summer in a few weeks.

While urban gun violence in Chicago and other cities is nothing new, there is a growing sense among community leaders that it's now at a crisis level.

The story speaks to a few key issues prevalent in the criminology field. Take, for example, this youth’s quote.

Jordan says having his high school years marred by the constant danger of gun violence is leading him to attend college as far "away from the city as possible; that's why I'm going to [go] all the way to the East Coast. I refuse to live my life in fear. "

Jordan plans to attend the Citadel in South Carolina next fall.

"My family is telling me, when I leave, don't come back," he says.

W.J. Wilson’s classic 1997 text, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, discusses how in Chicago’s most impoverished neighborhoods, those families who could afford to leave, did. As crime escalated, educated African American professionals, who once lived in those communities, bolted for the burbs. Thus, Chicago ghettos were left without those role models for the youth and young adults left behind.

In turn, the unemployed and those working in the informal economy became all the more visible for young people. This phenomenon is seen through Jordan’s plans, as another intelligent, motivated, college-bound youth is encouraged to never return to his Chicago community.

The other structural problem presented in this story is the proliferation of guns, which I
addressed before, though in a global context. Those interviewed in the NPR story talk about the responses that have been implemented to address this. They do discuss conflict resolution programs being put into practice, which there is nothing wrong with. However, this is still a relatively small-scale response to a macro problem, and therefore, will not likely result in major improvements.

They address other responses (i.e., reactions) being utilized, such as greater police presence.

The Chicago Police Department is targeting those entrenched gangs throughout the city in several ways. One is by what he calls "hardening the terrain," or having officers saturate certain areas such as parks, street corners and alleys that are known for gang activity.

A few concerns manifest from this approach. First, again, it is a reaction-based intervention, and thus, will not fix root issues. A positive that can develop from increased police presence is that some communities with high crime rates do not feel that they can move forward with crime prevention programming until criminal elements have been removed from their neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, what tends to happen more frequently with increased police presence is greater tension between the police and neighborhood residents. In addition, more arrests in these communities contribute further to the already disproportionately high number of poor, young men of color in the criminal and juvenile justice systems, largely for non-violent crimes.

As California has learned, prison over-crowding is also a major factor that contributes to state debt and a cutback in social services (e.g., education, health care), making the unintended rippling effects of amplified police enforcement quite harmful.

The one structural area that the story does address in the form of prevention is gun control (the audio file does not cover this part).

Complex problems require complex solutions," says Simeon senior Ronnie Mosley. "I think, you know, we have to kind of be radical in our approaches."

Mosley, who will attend Morehouse College in Atlanta in the fall, has led rallies and marches against gun violence with his classmates. He and other students have traveled to the Illinois State Capitol to push for an assault weapons ban, a state limit of one handgun purchase a month, and other "common-sense gun laws" — none of which has passed.

Since President Obama has pushed for increased gun control, there has been increased public sentiment for the individual right to bear arms. Recent research, however, has shown that the easier it is to obtain a gun in one’s community, the more likely homicide rates increase, and that the ease with which people can obtain guns is greater in minority communities (Shenassa, Daskalakis, & Buka, 2006).

Other research has shown that “Licensed dealers who kept no records or falsified records were the preferred source of supply for street gun merchants” (Wachtel, 1998, p. 232) and that while the number of licensed gun dealers who are corrupt is low, corrupt dealers still account for a huge portion of guns illegally trafficked and used in crimes. An example described from this study:

In a notable diversion involving 1,200 guns, a savvy vendor bypassed retail sources by using a forged Federal firearms license to buy guns directly from an unwitting distributor. After obliterating most of the serial numbers, the trafficker resold the guns to three other unlicensed peddlers in bulk quantities (p. 232).

Dealer corruption emerged as a surprisingly significant source of supply. Gun tracing disposed that some retailers had not only failed to account for incoming guns but also ignored State registration requirements. Malfeasance licensees was particularly evident in the casework, as 71 percent (13,667) of the diverted guns passed through 15 licensed dealers who made unrecorded or misrecorded sales to individuals and unlicensed vendors (p. 234).

In addition, the study notes that citizens without criminal records can easily purchase guns from vendors and then re-sell them or give them to others – what they refer to as a straw purchase. Also significant was theft from gun distributors. In these cases, the gun venders are not at fault, but the ease with which guns can be obtained (either through surrogate purchasing or theft) is obvious.

Increasing gun control through intensified background checks, not having gun retailers located in commercial sectors, and maintaining better oversight of retailers would not necessarily stop conflict between youth, but it would certainly mitigate the lethality.

The other key issue not addressed in the piece was gender. How many of the assailants and victims were males? Over 90%? Concerns over violent masculinity must be addressed as it relates to homicide and other violent crimes.

Wachtel, J. (1998). Sources of crime guns in Los Angeles, California. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, 21 (2), 220-239.

See also:

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Patriarchal Colonization in the Pacific

Over on The Global Sociology Blog, SocProf had a post explaining how the oppression of women (or other minorities) can be extended when government fails to intervene, and that a lack of governmental oversight – that some argue is too paternalistic – is frequently necessary to stop such obvious forms of oppression. The post reminded me of an NPR story about a very isolated colonial project, also rooted in extreme patriarchy.

I suppose most colonial projects are patriarchal, but the case of Pitcairn Island, hidden for many years in the South Pacific, now revealed, is particularly overt. Outside of Tonga, Pacific Island history was characterized heavily by colonization since the late 18th century.

Tahiti’s colonial history came at the hands of the French. However, Pitcairn Island, though close in proximity to French Polynesia, was colonized by the British, and holds a strong Tahitian tie. According to the book
Lost Paradise: From Mutiny on the Bounty to a Modern-Day Legacy of Sexual Mayhem, the Dark Secrets of Pitcairn Island Revealed, by Kathy Marks, a small number of Tahitian women were kidnapped by British explorers and taken to Pitcairn Island, where for literally centuries, systemic sexual abuse transpired.

The story was covered by NPR in April via an
interview with the book’s author.

According to Marks, sexual abuse was inflicted upon the Tahitian women and girls by the British men to such a consistent degree that over the decades, the assaults became a normalized part of Pitcairn culture. In fact, Marks’s interviews with Polynesian women on Pitcairn Island found that some of them justified the abuse – including the abuse of minors – arguing that the girls were promiscuous and seduced the older British men, noting further that youthful promiscuity was a typical aspect of Polynesian culture.

However, as Marks notes, this shouldn’t be especially surprising since the island culture was established such that men held all the power, in terms of work, politics, and ties to the colonial powerhouse, Great Britain. It was an extremely male dominated society that limited female resistance for many years. Also, internalizing blame is not uncommon among the chronically oppressed, reflecting socialization into socio-political norms.

On another note, the expressed racialized and gendered stereotype of youthful promiscuity among Polynesians falls in line with the writings of Margaret Mead, seen most blatantly in her 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa. It was later made known that the Samoans Mead interviewed had a fun time lying to her about their culture. Still, the stereotypes persisted among early western readers (probably among many contemporary ones as well). As seen through the Pitcairn case, the same stereotypes were utilized in a very separate space to systemically exploit Polynesian women and justify that exploitation.

This case illustrates, like local patriarchal cultures, highly isolated colonial projects require international intervention that confronts the racialized and gendered dimensions of domination.

(Photo courtesy of
Pictairan News).

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Sri Lanka "Protecting" Tamils - You Can't Be Serious

The Guardian has a story up – Sri Lankans divided by war: Tamils trapped in internment camps tell of desperate hunt for loved ones – that illustrates the psychological and physical harm so many of the now interned Tamils are enduring as the Sri Lankan government sifts through the internees to identify supposed Tamil Tigers (LTTE). In the mean time, the Tamil population is left tending to their own struggles, displaced, frequently injured and divided from loved ones.

The government’s excuse is that identifying remnant LTTE members takes priority over basic human rights, and that their efforts are "protecting" the internees.

More than 200,000 refugees are corralled inside Menik Farm, a sweltering 1,400 acres of scrubland sealed off by barbed wire. Some are still hoping to find relatives amid the rows of tents that provide a temporary home. But others say relatives were separated out by the military, suspected of being Tamil Tigers. The Sri Lankan government says it has so far identified more than 9,000 members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and is sending them to "rehabilitation centres", where they will be held for a year.

The government claims that it needs to keep the civilians in camps it is building in the north of the country until it can be sure that they are not members of the LTTE. The camps sprawl out over a vast area, mile after mile of tents where the unfortunate civilians displaced by the recent fighting have been told they could spend up to two years before they are allowed to go home.

Two years before the Tamil internees can go home? That lag will do wonders to foster reconciliation and integration. And is anyone buying this espoused rhetoric of working to "protect" Tamils, or this "rehabilitation centers" thing? Given that the Sri Lankan government systemically banned media from covering the conflict, my bet is that these "rehab centers" involve things like water boarding, if not worse.

(Photo courtesy of
The Guardian)

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A Peaceful Riot - Political Rap by Fatgums & Bambu

One of the reasons I majored in Comparative Culture back in the undergrad days was because I was listening to Ice Cube and Public Enemy. Now the hapa family is pumping out the political tradition. Spinning the wheels of steel is Fatgums Strand. East Asian hapas in the house!

Check out the video, below. "...A Peaceful Riot..."

"A Peaceful Riot" Release Party at Beatrock from Tadashi Nakamura on Vimeo.

Available at

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

More on IDPs, Colonialism, and Guns: The Philippines

The world has been moderately focused on the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDP) who have fled to under-prepared refugee camps, leaving their homes in Pakistan and Sri Lanka to escape the crossfire from wars between their governments and resistance forces. Similar phenomena are occurring in other areas of the world, including the southern area of the Philippines, in regions of Mindanao.

As reported by
IRIN (5/25/09):

It is almost 10 months since all-out war re-erupted between government forces and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

In recent months, about 8,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have flocked to Libungan Toretta, an impoverished yet picturesque village of a few hundred, mostly subsistence farmers, near Mindanao's Pigkawayan town. Many would rather suffer the indignity of living in squalid camps than getting caught in potentially deadly crossfire.

Not surprisingly, as the number of IDPs grows in and around “safe heavens,” competition for food and water in those heavens grows accordingly, as does the risk of disease due to rapid over population and inadequate waste disposal infrastructure. The approximately 8,000 recent Filipino IDPs, however, are a tiny fraction of the collective number of IDPs who have left their homes to evade internal conflicts over the years. More from the IRIN report:

According to the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), some 48,166 families or 240,650 people remain displaced by violence as of 18 May.

Of that number, 112,531 people are in some 127 evacuation centres scattered over Mindanao. Another 128,119 are staying with friends or relatives.

As with other contemporary civil wars that at face value only reflect internal state conflict, there are broader structural issues that stem from global inequality, a lack of regulation over weapons trafficking, and colonialism.

Beginning in the 16th century, Spanish colonialism in the Philippines was mediated heavily through trade, but even more so through the Catholic church. Islam, however, was less affected by the Spaniards in the southern region of Mindanao – also one of many areas where the eventual national language of Tagalog was not spoken.

In the 19th century, the Spanish and British made Manila the Philippines’s primary international port. As international trade grew, the Philippines’s agricultural economy shifted to a commercialized state, requiring peasant labor from other Philippine regions. Descendants of the early Spanish colonizers were thereby empowered financially and shortly thereafter, educationally.

By this time, the intellgentsia class was not just Anglo-Saxon. They were the descendants of the Spanish who had had children with the indigenous peoples. Seeking political power, this privileged class established a broader national identity of “Filipinos,” but which was less inclusive of the southern regions, notably where today’s Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is planted.

Thus, there were distinct geographic, political, and cultural (e.g., language, religion) differences between the northern and southern Philippine regions that could have led to a split into two separate states.

However, American colonization in 1898 changed the Philippines’s political dynamics dramatically. The southern Muslim regions were cemented as part of the Philippines nation, though they remained marginalized in the ways noted above. Furthermore, the Philippines solidified an American model of government and language (English) that benefited those living in the northern region, especially in and around the country’s capital of Manila.

Thus, even after the Japanese occupation during World War II and once independence from the U.S. was declared in 1946, the colonial structures remained. Filipinos from Mindanao were further excluded from the standardized power structures, and therein lays the colonial history of the resistance now being asserted by the MILF and similar resistance groups in the region.

This is not to overly romanticize MILF or organizations such the Abu Sayyaf Group. There is little doubt that they are involved in kidnappings, extortion, homicides, and other forms of organized crime that plague innocent communities.

As described, through their battles with the government, they play a significant role in creating hundreds of thousands of IDPs. This notwithstanding, to ignore the colonial traces of these organizations’ development would likewise be remiss.

Turning to a more contemporary structural problem, what makes resistance groups and national governments so dangerous is not necessarily their ideology, but the extremely easy access they have to acquiring weaponry.

Small arms are another factor that has an immense influence on IDPs world wide. To begin with, governments do little if anything to stop the spread of small arms (e.g., hand guns, AK47 assault rifles).
According to a 2006 report by IRIN (Guns Out of Control: The Continuing Threat of Small Arms), the United States exported $741 million worth of small arms in 2001. And while U.S. manufacturers may not sell these arms to unlicensed buyers nationally and internationally, the re-sale of these U.S. made weapons frequently lacks oversight.

In short, there are meager global criterions that could help enforce regulation and prevent small arms sales to organizations in countries/regions that are embedded in heavy conflict. This makes prevention of weapons trafficking through the black market virtually impossible.

Moreover, the spread of small arms continues in large part because guns are durable over long time periods – up to twenty years. Thus, as countries like the United States, China, Iran, Brazil, and Switzerland keep producing small arms and have the ability sell those arms globally without serious impediment, the deleterious effects will last literally for decades.

The role small arms play in creating IDPs is obvious. Guns don’t only kill and injure victims; they maximize intimidation. Again, non-violent civilians like those in Mindanao feel compelled to leave their homes out of fear from being caught in crossfire. Additionally, small arms are the primary instruments used by state and rebel forces to bully people out of their communities and/or commit other crimes, including rape. The rippling effects of mass displacement can be extremely severe. From the IRIN report:

A gun may not ostensibly be culpable for the death of a malnourished child. This child, however, may have been forced to leave his home at gunpoint in a time of war, to flee from productive land and a nearby clinic to a locale so militarized that even the most hardened aid agencies have given up attempting to supply food and medical aid. The ultimate cause of death may be starvation, but the chaos and destruction perpetrated at the barrel of a gun lay the foundation of this tragic end, illustrating the indirect, destructive impact of guns in unregulated settings (p. 6).

The above paragraph applies directly to ongoing crises in and around regions of the Philippines, Somalia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, DRC, Kenya, etc. Historically, western colonialism played a significant role in shaping the stratified national structure of the Philippines, which still manifests in today’s internal conflict.

Adding to the problem, contemporary loose international policies allow for weapons trading that make these international conflicts all the more deadly. And as the conflicts intensify, the weapons manufacturing companies intensify their wealth.

For more on the corruption and shifting alliances that affect the small arms market, listen to these great podcasts:
* BBC World Service Report:
The Afghan Arms Bazaar (Thursday 18 September 2008; you have to scroll down to find it)
* NPR:
Where Does Mexico Get Its Guns? (17 April 2009)

(Photos courtesy of IRIN)

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

How Looking the Other Way Perpetuates Extremism

The BBC World Service provided a fantastic discussion between 18-year-old Janani Paramsothy, who is a Tamil, living in the United Kingdom, and Tommy McKearney, a former member of the IRA who was imprisoned for 16 years.

Paramsothy supports the Tamil Tigers (LTTE; see my previous post) and wishes to re-locate to Sri Lanka so that she may continue the fight against the Sinhalese majority, who has recently declared victory in their 26-year war over the LTTE.

McKearney offers strategic advice to Paramsothy, suggesting she take less violent and more constructive, diplomatic measures in her cause. However, Paramsothy asks McKearney a tough question that points to the world's dismissal of this colossal tragedy, illustrating further the argument I made earlier (in the post just before this one), that when developed countries turn a blind eye to collective violence and mass victimization, the victims feel forced to take extreme measures.

Tommy McKearney

From the BBC World Service discussion, just after McKearney attempts to tell Paramsothy that not all non-Tamils in Sri Lanka will be unsympathetic to the Tamil plight:

Paramsothy: Can I just ask you, you know throughout your time with the IRA, did you ever feel as if the whole world was ignoring you, or your cause?

McKearney: Many, many times. Very, very often, and on many occasions, it caused us to make some very poor decisions. Possibly one of the worst decisions, one of the worst mistakes we made was to underestimate the decency of the people on the other side. Not all of them, and many of them were far from being decent, but among the English people, among the British people, there was then and remains an enormous reservoir of decency. And I am convinced humanity doesn't change that much, that you will find something similar among the Sri Lankan people...

Paramsothy's question illustrates that as minority groups continue being oppressed without any international support (let alone attention), desperate measures become increasingly attractive. One of the key ingredients that frequently contributes to the creation of extremist groups is a lack of diplomatic involvement on the part of developed countries, which is exactly what happened in the Sri Lankan case.

The 18-year-old Paramsothy articulates the problem more poignantly:

Paramsothy: I think it's in the hands of the international community now ... if they step in to take responsibility for all the Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka, then we'd be happy enough here ... There would be no need for me to go back and I'd continue my life here. But if no one's willing to help those people, then every day that I spend here is another day that people spend dying there ... Every day that goes past, the silence of the world on the matter, there's more and more people dying...

Listen to the entire piece. There is a great deal more, and it is simply outstanding.

(Photos courtesy of the BBC World Service)

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Collective Violence in Developing Countries Cannot be Ignored

Obviously, the United States has displayed strong interest across the Middle East, heavily focused on issues of national security as troops continue to be deployed across Iraq and Afghanistan, while worries grow about the Taliban and nuclear developments in Pakistan and Iran.

The continued involvement of the U.S. military is problematic to say the least, not only in terms of the dangers U.S. troops face (see
here), but also in terms of generating increased resentment towards the U.S. from parties in the Middle East.

This is not to say that U.S. involvement should cease entirely. New wars in the post-Cold War era are no longer characterized by violence between military factions. According to Stefan Wolff’s
Ethnic Conflict: A Global Perspective, “At the beginning of the twentieth century only about 10 per cent of war casualties were civilians, while by the end of the century the figure was closer to 95 per cent (p. 14).”

Also, new wars are regional, no longer characterized by rigid state boundaries. Hence, the number of internally displaced persons (IDP) within and between countries has been colossal in areas where warlords clash with each other and different government entities.

In some cases, IDPs are killed directly by militant forces in order to obtain revenge, intimidate others, or carry out genocide. But most deaths for IDPs come from malnourishment and disease. From purely a humanitarian standpoint, the U.S. should be involved in preventing global violence that leads to mass civilian casualties and in setting up conflict management systems in cases where violence has already commenced.

Also from a national interest perspective, the U.S. needs to help develop stable non-discriminating governments and economic infrastructure that will dissuade young IDPs from being seduced by organized crime and terrorist groups that offer perceptions of stability, power, and meaning in life.

More from
Stefan Wolff:

Ethnic conflicts create instability, refugees, and conditions in which organized crime and increasingly international terrorism can fester (p. 16).

As economic desperation grows, as the gap between rich and poor widens, and as the disparity in development between the developed and developing world increases, religious fundamentalism and criminal intent will fall on fertile ground and exploit existing inter-ethnic tensions to build themselves political and territorial power bases from which to operate (p. 206).

The conflicts do not have to be inter-ethnic; they can be intra-ethnic as well (or have a mix of inter/intra-ethnic conflicts). In Pakistan’s Swat Valley, 1.5 million people have been displaced due to fighting between the Taliban and Pakistani military. This
NPR report quotes a Pakistani refugee who states, “‘all this misery is happening’ because politicians ‘have not tended to the poor,’ whom she says are easy prey for Taliban recruiters.” And it’s not just the Middle East.

I wrote before regarding Somalia, well over 250,000 Somali IDPs are congregated in over-crowded Kenyan refugee camps – obvious venues for criminal/terrorist recruitment. However, it appears recruitment may not be limited to Somalia and its neighbors. I recently attended an outstanding social services conference in Minnesota, where I learned a major Somali community has developed.

Not surprisingly young Somali refugees are frequently experiencing difficulties integrating into Minnesota schools, for a variety of reasons (e.g., discrimination, lack of educational background). With this stratification that begins on a global level and then continues in Minnesota schools, a small minority of the youthful Somali population is then seduced by extremism. From

New Somalis are arriving in Minneapolis all the time, and many begin their high school careers in what is essentially a Somali phonics class. A lot of the new Somali students are illiterate. So they basically sound out Somali words on the board — as first-graders might do in this country. As a result, in many ways, they have become isolated even in their own high school.


The bad news is that the isolation of the Somali community has made its members vulnerable to radical ideas.

“We have seen a very, very small percentage who have come to identify with extremists in Somalia, be they al-Shabab or potentially elements of al-Qaida”…

And then there is Sri Lanka, where the conflict is inter-ethnic, and where the U.S. is completely hands-off (including the mainstream media). In the aftermath of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) defeat, 250,000 Tamils have been displaced. Little doubt, the discrimination cast upon Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority over the past half century is continuing with the Sinhalese victory.

Many in the Tamil diaspora express their anger and/or sorrow, and
foresee a bleak future for Tamils in Sri Lanka:

…I feel the Sinhalese want to raze the identity of Tamils. They have occupied Kilinochchi. That is our place. In five years time they will change the name of that town to a Sinhalese name.

They will build Buddhist temples and take Sinhalese migrants to that area. They want the whole nation to be Buddhist and Sinhalese.

Among the few international leaders paying attention to the Sri Lankan conflict, some have argued that the Sinhalese majority must provide Tamils with greater access to forms of power. The
BBC reports the following from Erik Solheim, Norwegian Minister for International Development:

“If the Sri Lankan government can show generosity in victory, give a substantial devolution of power to Tamil self-government in the north-east and create an inclusive state for the Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslims, then we may see a lasting solution to the Sri Lankan problem,” he said.

But the Sri Lankan government says it is working on a political solution and it requires time to evolve a consensus among political parties in the south.

The more time taken, the longer Tamils wallow in impoverished conditions, the more they can cite systemic discrimination, and the more attractive extremist groups become for those suffering.

Yet in many of the conflicts existing outside of the Middle East and that don’t appear to affect the U.S. immediately, the U.S. attitude is “let them work it out” (e.g., Sri Lanka, Darfur). But as Stefan Wolff suggests, this hands-off attitude will not bode well for the U.S. over the long haul, and certainly not for the victims in those regions right now.

The answer is not increased militarism. The case of Afghanistan applies here. While most Afghanis are not pro-Taliban,
recent U.S. air strikes that may have killed up to 140 innocent civilians have done little to maintain Afghani anti-Taliban sentiments. “The Afghan government concluded 140 were killed, most of them children. It says more than two dozen were injured.”

Diplomatic concessions need to take place that insure minorities’ equal rights to work, political representation, education, and useable land, and the U.S. needs to be involved. Relative to past leadership, the Obama Administration has been fairly adamant about Israel coming to terms with Palestinian secession.

Yet despite President Obama’s recent meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that called for a two-state solution, Israel’s
expansion into Palestinian land is not subsiding. Where will the U.S. stand on these and other issues in which minorities across the globe continue to be exploited?

As climate change continues to shift access to agricultural resources and the global economic crisis persists, we can expect an increase in collective violence in developing countries. To think that the U.S. and other developed countries will not be affected by this is violence ludicrous. Preventative diplomacy must not be delayed.

(Photo courtesy of

Update from today - Fierce battle in Somali Capital

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Slumdog Colonization

So the hit movie Slumdog Millionaire won eight Oscars and has grossed over $200 million. Yet the youngest stars of the film have not seen enough of that cash to get them out of the real slums where they and their families continue live in India. According to the BBC, Rubina Ali, who played the youngest version of “Latika,” had her house (built out of bamboo and plastic sheets) bulldozed down by the Indian government.

To make matters worse, her father, Rafiq Qureshi, was allegedly beaten after he attempted to stop the government from demolishing their home. Perhaps not surprisingly, “Last week authorities demolished the home of Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, another Slumdog child actor .... police were accused of ‘smacking’ Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail with a bamboo stick before ordering him out.”

The authorities claim he and other families were squatting on land that was owned by the government.


Many claim they were not informed about the planned demolition and that help for new housing promised by local authorities and by the film's makers had not materialized.

Slumdog director Danny Boyle has strongly denied claims of exploitation.

The film makers have set up funds to pay for the young actors' education and they have been enrolled in school for the first time.

They also recently announced that they will donate $776,294 (£500,000) to a charity which will help children living in the slums of Mumbai.

CNN report indicates that Ali’s home may not have been one of the 18 that was demolished. Still, given the impoverished conditions where these children and their families live and the ongoing risk the families endure, is it asking too much to give the actors and their families a greater share of the profits in timely fashion?

The irony of the situation is that Slumdog Millionaire focuses so heavily on the ways that poverty in India harms communities. Yet here we have an apparent case of a major movie production company and its movers and shakers exploiting destitute families for extreme profit.

This is a contemporary form of colonization where through popular culture, western companies profit from the gaze that western audiences cast upon the most underprivileged sectors of developing countries and the plight that those communities suffer. Social stratification manifests in this colonial project by way of race, class, nationalism, and age.

India obviously had a good portion of its history enmeshed under British colonial rule. Presently, the colonial methods used to exploit developing countries are more stealthy and multi-faceted.

(Photo courtesy of the BBC).

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Colonialism Forgotten: The Case of Sri Lanka

A good deal of the world’s attention has been focused on Sri Lanka and the conflict between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority. With regard to the Tamils, however, most of the attention is directed towards the Tamil Tigers, a resistance group that advocates for secession, frequently through force.

So the Tamil Tigers are not boy scouts. The means by which they fight for secession are often violent and extremely immoral. They have been accused, for example, of abducting children and pressuring Tamil families to give up their children to become soldiers (see

Historical Backdrop to Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict

Unfortunately, in the mainstream international discourse of this ongoing conflict, Sri Lanka’s historical context has been very much glossed over. Historically, Sri Lanka endured some degrees of independence under the rule of the Portuguese and Dutch, but it was the shifting political dynamics prompted by British colonists in the 19th and 20th centuries that paved the way for ethnic conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese.

Unbeknownst to many, Tamils, though a numerical minority in Sri Lanka during the 1800s, were a socio-political majority relative to the numerically larger Sinhalese population. It was Tamils at the time who took advantage of the British political and economic structural arrangements in Sri Lanka, while Sinhalese felt their language and religion (Buddhism) were threatened.

Following 1931 when universal voting rights were put into place by the British, the numerically larger Sinhalese began to gain political power. With independence in 1948, Sri Lanka (then “Ceylon”) was left without a political infrastructure or plan that could have helped to mitigate the severe ethnic conflict that has ravaged Sri Lanka now for decades. It was no longer a British problem – it was a Sri Lankan problem.

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, Tamils became more and more underprivileged, having to cope with institutionalized discrimination (e.g., Sinhalese became the country’s official language in 1956; Buddhism was privileged over Hinduism).

Current State of Tamil Oppression

Not surprisingly, as access to work and education diminished for the Tamils, efforts for secession increased, and this is what we have now (narrative taken from
video produced by The Guardian. Click on the link and watch the video; it is very graphic, but demonstrates the severity of this alarming conflict.):

We’ve reached a point where death is not a problem now… Everyone’s like, whatever happens, it happens. That’s it. That’s the mentality every single person has here… Children’s lost their parents. Parent’s lost their children. It’s just a common thing now. It’s like everyday routine now. Death is not a problem at all here now. People are used to it.

Distorted Image of the Tamil Population and their Forgetten Victimization

The dominant image of the Tamil Tigers – the most violent secessionist group among the Tamils – lacks context. For instance, this
TIME magazine article offers a few sentences that address the oppression faced by Tamils. But they offer numerous paragraphs, such as those below, that demonize the Tamil Tigers and Tamils in the international diaspora.

…the Tigers have plotted many brutal attacks, including more than 200 by suicide bombers, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Tens of thousands of Sri Lankans have been killed in the conflict and more have been displaced. The LTTE has bombed public buildings and transportation hubs, Buddhist temples and other locations, and is known for missions involving female suicide bombers and for recruitment of child soldiers…

Through their history, the Tigers have financed their operations with bank robberies and drug smuggling, among other illegal acts. They are also believed to get much of their support from ethnic Tamils living in Western Europe and Canada. Some estimates say the LTTE raises more than $200 million a year...

However, as Tamil journalist
Cynthia Shanmugalingam writes, it is the Sri Lankan state, led by the Sinhalese, that are currently displacing literally hundreds of thousands of Tamils, forcing them into horrid conditions. Furthermore, censorship is being enforced as the Sri Lankan military attacks the Tigers and non-violent Tamils around them (who may or may not be used by the Tigers as human shields).

In Sri Lanka right now, around 100,000 civilians are trapped in a war zone, where they are being shelled every day by their government. A further 200,000 are in army-controlled internment camps without adequate food or water – and no sign of them being let out any time soon. They are all Tamil, like me and my family. That is about 10% of the entire Tamil population in Sri Lanka. To put it into perspective, it's about a quarter of the population of the entire Gaza strip.

There are two possible reasons why this is happening. First, that the Tamil Tigers are terrorists, and civilian deaths are unfortunate collateral damage in Sri Lanka's domestic war on terror. Or, second, that killing Tamil Tigers is a ruse for killing Tamils, and that the government is using the terrorist line to spin a sinister agenda.

While the international community grapples with Sri Lanka's insistence that it is the former, a depressing body of evidence points towards the sinister. There is the censorship – areas restricted to journalists including the "safe" zone where undercover reporters have to sneak out news of horrors.

What’s happening now is dreadful example of what can happen on a macro level when an institutional framework is not set up that provides for conflict management. Excessive ethnic conflict does occur without a colonial pretext.

However, western colonialism played a significant role in the current Sri Lankan crisis. You cannot just go into a society, colonize it, create imbalances of power based on language/culture, and then simply leave. Well, I suppose you can. We’re seeing the results now.

(Photos courtesy of
The Guardian)

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

As they're saying, the Comedian-In-Chief


Judging and Juggling Motherhood with Work

One of my favorite radio shows is Michele Martin’s “Tell Me More” over on NPR. Earlier today, Martin posted a story that she read to close out her show titled “Motherhood Shouldn't Be A Competitive Sport.” With the sporting metaphor in the title, I was immediately drawn to the piece.

Martin’s thesis is that mothers are constantly being judged by various sectors of society, not only by men, but also by women – mothers and non-mothers alike. And much of the criticism is rooted in the expectations of mothers having to balance their working lives with their parenting lives, and the financial costs it takes to raise a child in today’s society.

Can I just tell you? Over the two years I have been doing this program, I have also heard all kinds of crazy stories from people believing they have a right to weigh in on the lives of mothers they do not even know. I have a few myself: When I was pregnant I was about to start an interview with a very famous and well-respected faith leader. I had been speaking with this man for about, oh, 30 seconds before he asked me if I planned to stop working when my children were born.

I asked him if he planned to send my children to college when they were grown.

Then there are all the people who think they can ask you why you aren't putting your kid in math-rocket-ship-piano camp. My answer is always the same: I'll be happy to take your input when you start writing the checks.

And speaking of that, don't get me started on the kinds of judgments poor mothers encounter when they fail to meet society's standards for their children.

Martin ended her piece with a great athletic metaphor, noting appropriately at the end of her piece, however, that parenting is not a competitive activity, even if it is covertly treated that way by society:

My take on this? It goes back to the judgment that people think they can direct at mothers. I think it comes from an attitude of powerlessness, or a sense that power is only derivative (it's handed over by someone else). So your worth is never your own accomplishment; it's always in comparison with others. It's like the difference between track and figure skating. In track, you just have to be the fastest. In figure skating, you have to please the judges.

And it's as if, as mothers, we are figure skating all the time, always looking for the perfect 10. And it's never going to happen because it isn't a competition.

I noticed something Martin did not address was that fathers are not held to these same parenting expectations. Especially in today’s western nuclear family, fathers are expected to go to work, be the breadwinners, and leave the parenting (i.e., mothering) to the mothers. As Sharon Hayes writes in The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, mothers are defined by society to be the better-suited parenting figures because:

…men are ‘emotional midgets’ with ‘one track minds’ who only think ‘man-thoughts’ and can only understand bread-winning (and dinosaurs). Women, on the other hand, can keep track of all the details, are good at juggling many tasks at once and, above all, are inherently good nurturers (p. 129).

This societal perspective leaves men free to work, free from familial responsibilities, free from nurturing and spending quality time with their kids, while working mothers must accept the dual role of being super mom and working professional. There is no serious concept of sharing parental nurturing between mother and father, let alone extended family members. Instead, working mothers must juggle dual roles or give up their careers, along with the financial/political power that accompanies occupational success.

Martin’s piece also reminded me of ESPN’s Sunday Conversation with WNBA basketball star of the Los Angeles Sparks, Lisa Leslie (see below):

In professional sports, obviously athletic moms have to deal with pregnancy and childbirth, which affects their athletic play temporarily (and in rare cases permanently). But notice how the piece opens, with the interviewer asking Leslie about how she copes with being a mom and professional athlete, as well as how the piece focuses on Leslie not only playing with her children, but also nurturing them and how she juggles motherhood and basketball.

How many male sports figures will be asked these types of questions on Father's Day? Would a sports reporter ever ask Shaquille O’Neal these questions about nurturing his children (as opposed to paying child support)? I suppose if that happened, Shaq would have to talk about all the kids he’s had with various women.

Sure sporting dads are shown playing with their kids in sports human-interest stories. However, there is rarely a distinct focus on raising and nurturing their children. So while professional moms are scrutinized for rendering their familial duties secondary to their careers, fathers are excused from being involved fathers.

Although the image below doesn’t speak exactly to the issue of mothering, it still relegates professional women who stand at the apex of their professions to the domestic sphere. It also shows that the expectations haven’t changed much over the years. Martina anyone?

For further sports media examples that highlight the societal obligations of athletic mothers, see these stories. I couldn't find too many on sporting dads, other than THIS ONE.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Applying Crim Theory to Piracy

I’ve been meaning to write about this issue for quite some time, but the NBA playoffs have gripped of my attention. Thankfully, it seems the Rockets will still push the Lakers without Yao. Back to the task at hand.

After taking Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama hostage in April, Somali pirates saturated our media. Watching CNN was like watching an international crime drama on TNT. Since the theatrics have settled, a sharper set of analyses have emerged, some of which speak to classic criminology theories.

Deviance/Labeling Theory

Society views piracy off the coast of Somalia as violently criminal only because it is defined, or labeled, that way. We witnessed armed kidnapping, attempts to extort millions of dollars and eventually, a violent intervention to save Capt. Phillips that resulted in the death of three Somali pirates. But as Ann Pettifor illustrates in the Huffington Post, violent criminality can take shape in other forms that society doesn’t so quickly label as violent.

Somali Pirates were condemned when they hijacked tankers, took sailors hostage and demanded million-dollar ransoms. But their demands were a drop in the bucket compared to the ransoms demanded by Wall Street. And the Somalis were kinder to their hostages than Wall Street is to millions of unemployed Americans. For while the Somalian pirates returned hostages unharmed, bankers, fraudsters and failed insurers continue to harm the US administration and hold millions of Americans hostage. The latter are being stripped effectively, of pensions, savings, livelihoods and jobs.

In other words, taking away working class people’s livelihood, has substantially worse and lengthier consequences than holding a group of individuals and the companies they work for hostage for millions of dollars.
Not that being held hostage at sea is pleasant by any means, but extensive physical violence is not carried out by the pirates “because Somali pirates rarely threaten or kill hostages. The moment crew members get hurt or killed, the pirates lose their most important bargaining chip” (Joffe-Walt, NPR).

Conversely, consider the violence that is bound to emerge from the economic crisis, not only in the form of increased property crime, drug trafficking, and intimate partner violence, but also in terms of the collective years people will have to work after losing their pensions and the psychological effects of mass under- and unemployment, such as suicide.

While the banking industry has been criticized, society does not label its irresponsibility as violent. Clearly, however, the disseminated imagery of Somali pirates evokes notions of highly violent crime – a labeling of violence.

Labeling theorists would argue that the above pictures and the description, below, of Somali pirates perpetuate their mainstream identity as violent criminals, while white collar criminals are portrayed as shrewd, callous businessmen, but not as violent per se. From Chris Parry’s article in The Independent:

The modern-day Somalian pirate comes from a country where some of Africa's worst factional fighting and communal killing has taken place. He is either an ex-militia fighter or a fisherman, and would have known deprivation and insecurity all his life. He will now have access to mobile phones, GPS devices and other expensive technologies, amassed by the reinvestment of cash from ship ransoms. He will be armed with a personalised Kalashnikov assault rifle and will be capable of firing rocket-propelled grenade launchers. And if he has any sense, he will steer well clear of the ongoing conflict in Somalia between the ruling Union of Islamic Courts, the strong al-Qa'ida presence, and the western-backed African Union and Ethiopian "occupation" forces.

Control Theory

Control theory assumes that society needs institutional forms of social control to keep people, well, controlled. These institutions are families, places of work, schools, churches, and so on. Furthermore, the theory assumes there is a dominant code of morality espoused by these institutions that the general populace believes in and follows.

Not only do these institutions socialize society into believing various social norms, but they also keep members of society emotionally attached and socially involved. Members of society develop social bonds with their classmates, teachers, family members, pastors, co-workers and so on.

If someone were to engage in crime or deviance, s/he would be forced to cut those social bonds. Moreover, members of society are busy participating in conventional activities (e.g., attending school, playing sports, planning family outings, working), giving them less time and energy to even think about engaging in criminal acts – “Idle hands do the devil’s work.”

Thus, social control theorists would explain piracy off the coast of Somalia by pointing out the lack of institutions in Somalia that would otherwise help form conventional social bonds and keep people busy in conventional activities. They would look at the lawlessness that has ensconced Somalia, beginning so blatantly in 1991. From The Ottawa Citizen:

Piracy starts inland. The problem is the lack of a central government in Somalia - there are no jobs, no schools, so there are millions of Somali youths sitting there with nothing... They are recruited by fundamentalists who give them hope of going to paradise in the fight against infidels, or they are recruited by the pirates, who say, 'Come with us, capture one ship and your share is $40,000.' What kid says no to that?

Related somewhat to social control theory is the theory of social disorganization. The theory of social disorganization historically applied to major cities in North America, noting that the concentric zone just outside of downtown business centers was muddled with ethnic heterogeneity, unemployment, poverty, and among other concerns, transience. These conditions were said to cause and perpetuate crime, irrespective of which groups moved in and out of the “criminogenic” zone.

While ethnic diversity doesn’t apply to the Somali situation, unemployment, poverty and transience certainly do. Daniel Howden’s article in The Independent describes Somali refugees’ mass movement into Kenya, noting the chaotic conditions that typify socially disorganized communities and frequently spark criminal behaviors.

The lucky ones come with their families, others appear out of the thorn bushes, walking alone. Five hundred Somalis are now arriving at this bleak Kenyan outpost every day. They join a population of 267,000 and counting, in a facility built to shelter just 45,000. While the world has been captivated by the high seas drama of Somalia's pirates, this human tide has swollen the ranks of Dadaab, turning it into the world's largest refugee camp. The new arrivals sit in their hundreds under a makeshift tarpaulin, trying to keep perfectly still in temperatures that reach 40C in the shade. It speaks volumes for the horrors unfolding in Somalia that people will abandon their homes, risk arbitrary arrest, death or starvation to reach the desolate welcome on offer in this corner of northern Kenya.

(Somali refugee camp)

Social control theorists would argue that in order to stop Somali piracy, there needs to be a bolstering of institutions on Somali land that stops excessive forms of social disorganization. To some degree, the following excerpt from Corey Flintoff’s piece on NPR speaks to this theoretical perspective (although at the end, it's rooted a bit heavily in enforcement).

Most officials and experts agree that the solution to piracy off the Somali coast will require more than enforcement by foreign militaries. It will require mending the failed Somali state, by helping to restore stability and a government in Somalia strong enough to enforce laws and police the coastline.

Rational Choice Theory

Rational choice theorists argue that criminals, like conventional businesspersons, make rational choices by weighing the pros and cons of a criminal opportunity (I’ve always thought at base level, this was the simplest theory ever created).
It also assumes people are inherently bad, that if given the free will to commit crime, most people would jump at the chance. Thus, When opportunity knocks, if the negative possibilities that come along with committing the crime are minimized (e.g., low likelihood of getting caught, lenient punishment) in contrast to the possible rewards (e.g., wealth, power, prestige), potential criminals make a “rational” choice to engage in crime.

Substantial chatter around the internet supports rational choice theory, suggesting that the best way to stop piracy is to make the consequences of piracy appear and be more negative than positive. This essentially means fighting force with more force, ships having more artillery and artillery that is more sophisticated than that which pirates have.

According to Michael Sullivan’s NPR piece, piracy around Southeast Asia has dropped due to increased enforcement that was bankrolled through funds stemming from the war on terror, dedicated to areas with high Muslim populations, such as Indonesia.

…Indonesia has done a better job of dealing with the problem. And contributions by foreign governments — such as new coastal radar and new boats for the Indonesian maritime police — also have helped.

Rational choice theorists would argue that similar efforts should be taken in waters around Somalia. From Tom Bowman’s piece on NPR:

Navy ships to patrol for pirates off Somalia — but probably not more than a handful. Other countries are being encouraged to send more ships as well.

Increasing the number of warships makes sense to Rick Norton, a retired Navy commander who teaches national security at the U.S. Naval War College.

"You can do a lot with relatively low-end, inexpensive ships, corvettes, frigates, the types of ships that many navies in the world have," Norton says.


Pentagon sources say other options in Mullen's piracy review include placing U.S. Navy security teams of a half-dozen armed sailors or Marines aboard some commercial ships. The ships could provide security along shipping routes more at risk of piracy.

Convoys are another option, Norton says.

"You could set up a convoy system, you could set up traffic lanes, and you could patrol the traffic lanes and thereby reduce the amount of water you had to cover to prevent pirate attacks," he says.


Yet another option calls for military attacks against pirate havens in Somalia — the camps where they live and plan their raids.

On the flip side of that coin, pirates will continue to make rational choices, building their piracy businesses as long as the outcomes are profitable and losses are decreased. Chana Joffe-Walt had an excellent piece on NPR that illustrates this perspective and again, the rational choice theory:

[J. Peter] Pham [James Madison University] cautions, the pirates must choose their target carefully.

"Does it have any value? Who is the crew? Do they have any security onboard? Who owns the ship? All of those things have to be factored. This is a business decision, to seize a ship. Westerners command a lot more money than poor Filipinos, whose country and families don't have the money to ransom them," Pham says.

"A European is going to fetch you a lot more than a Filipino. No one is going to ransom an African. I'm being brutally frank, but it's true," he says.


If the pirates have made "good" business decisions, they will soon successfully seize a ship — and have "customers" such as Per Gullestrup, CEO of the Clipper Group, a Danish shipping company. One of the company's ships, with its crew of 13, was hijacked last November in the Gulf of Aden.

When it happened, Gullestrup called the company's insurer, who wanted Gullestrup to pay a ransom and get the ship back — otherwise, the insurer would be stuck with covering a $15 million ship. Gullestrup's company could have tried to take the ship back by force, but that is usually when hostages get killed.

So the insurer put Gullestrup in touch with a professional ransom negotiator.

After three days, the pirates called.
"They introduced themselves, you know, 'My name is Ali; I'm your friendly pirate today' — not quite, but you almost got that sense. They're not making threats or anything. They're very polite in their whole demeanor," Gullestrup says.

They just politely demanded $7 million.

Just as Gullestrup had hired a professional negotiator, the pirates hired one, too — usually someone who speaks English well, often a lawyer. In this instance the pirates' negotiator — "Ali" — had spent 29 years in the U.S.

And like conventional businesses across the world, pirates are organized in ways that stratify and bureaucratize their work force.

Gullestrup says they actually found time sheets onboard the ship after the pirates had left.

"We could see that there was a time sheet on a particular person who had been onboard and dates they had been onboard and so many dollars per day, and then a total sum on the time sheet," he says. The pirates, in effect, were clocking in and out.

From this and other ransom situations, here's a typical accounting for a piracy operation: About 20 percent goes to pay off officials who look the other way. About 50 percent is for expenses and payroll. The leader of an attack makes $10,000 to $20,000 (the average Somali family lives on $500 a year). The initial investor — who put in $250,000 of seed capital — gets 30 percent, sometimes up to $500,000.

In short, potential pirates look at their occupational options, which include various criminal enterprises and virtually no conventional choices. When the pros of piracy outweigh the cons, they move in the logical direction. Rational choice theorists feel ending piracy means making the cons of piracy more apparent. Here’s the bottom line from the rational choice theory perspective, from Tom Gjelten’s piece on NPR:

Ship owners, like all businessmen, look at the bottom line: Time is money, and when pirates attack one of their ships, owners typically just want to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible. So they pay the ransom.

And back to Gwen Thompkins’s piece on NPR:

For many Somalis, choosing a line of business is the most practical decision of all. What works is right, and what doesn't work is wrong. That is why piracy has taken hold in the country: It's a multimillion-dollar industry that works.

Critical Criminology

Critical criminologists argue that crime is a ramification of power imbalances in society and that crime perpetuates these power imbalances, often times covertly through the development of laws and infrastructure that protect the powerful and keep the poor powerless. To this end, those within this school of thought argue that the real crimes committed on society are not those we see in the news (e.g., piracy), but those that are not so obviously apparent, including the cultural mores that create poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination.

Actually, a good deal of analysis on contemporary piracy has taken a critical lens, spotlighting how the Somali people, already reeling from civil war, have been victimized by developed countries and their cargo ships that have ruined Somalia’s fishing waters and dumped toxic waste off Somalia’s shores. In doing so, the cargo ships have ruined the one industry Somalis had – fishing, which has made piracy an even more attractive and necessary occupation. From a video produced by the CBC:

Over the past years, Somali pirates have attacked over 100 ships, holding them for ransom before freeing them and their crews. They’re estimated to have gotten away with $30 million.

All but unnoticed amid the outrage over the hijackings, a different group of pirates has managed to wreak havoc off Somalia without international labor patrols bothering to stop them. In this case, it’s not Somalis who are the pirates. They are the victims. With no government to enforce its sovereignty, foreign ships have been dumping toxic waste off Somalia’s coast, and foreign trawlers have been fishing illegally in its waters.

President of the Canadian Somali Congress: “When you see the coverage of piracy, in most of the national media, you don’t hear much about the $300 million annually that’s lost by Somali fisherman in illegal fishing done by foreign interests. You also never hear about the cost that cannot be estimated, the negative costs of toxic waste.


It is understandable that outside powers, having been bitten, are now gun-shy about trying to intervene. What is hard to comprehend is why the outside world would make things worse for the Somalis by turning a blind eye to foreigners fishing illegally in Somali waters and poisoning them with toxic waste.


And as can be expected, the starving people who’ve been robbed have retaliated with some countering of their own. The attacks on foreign ships, Somalis say, started as a reaction to foreign pillages trying to put their fishermen out of business.


…you could perhaps dump a ton of toxic waste in Africa for about $8, per ton. Versus the cost of safe disposal in Europe or maybe North America for about $1000 a ton. So there’s a huge potential profit in such an illegal trade … (Narrator) It makes the $3 million paid to the pirates who held a Saudi oil tanker for two months look like chump change … Clearly, the international community is culpable to the extent that they have allowed toxic waste to leave ports in developed economies and end up in a vulnerable community, a vulnerable country like Somali with enough problems, let alone dealing with toxic waste.

Johann Hari from The Independent adds to this:

In 1991, the government of Somalia collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country's food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.

Yes: nuclear waste. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.


At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia's seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish stocks by overexploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m-worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are being stolen every year by illegal trawlers. The local fishermen are now starving.

Critical criminologists would contend that Somali pirates are not the ultimate criminals in this situation. Instead, the true criminals are the international corporations and their executives who take advantage of Somalia’s unsteady government and destroy Somalia's fishing waters and shores. They would also point to powerful sectors in the international community that looked away when Somalis were further victimized.

Thus, while piracy is not applauded, it is seen as a symptom of a much greater crime that has more disastrous effects financially and in terms of human health. Critical criminologists would point to the fact that three of the four pirates holding
Capt. Phillips are dead. Since this international tragedy has transpired, what punishments have been dealt to the corporations that dump toxic waste off Somalia coasts? Exactly.

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