There has been a brief resurgence of public, political and media interest in the issue of piracy in Somalia following the release of the Hollywood blockbuster movie Captain Phillips. Based on the real-life failed hijacking of US cargo ship, Maersk Alabama, and boasting a star studded cast including Tom Hanks in the role of Captain Phillips, the film grossed $208,887,640 worldwide (Box Office Mojo 2013). However, it must be noted that although the film was marketed as being a “true story,” the depiction is notably a narrow, one-sided, Western interpretation of the threat of the “dangerous other,” that ignores the multifaceted and complex nature of piracy in Somalia.
The movie plot follows the April 2009 failed hijacking and subsequent kidnapping of the Maersk Alabama’s Captain – US citizen Richard Phillips. In this case, four young Somali men, traveling in a motorized skiff, and armed with automatic weapons, approached the US cargo ship. Having pulled alongside the Alabama, the men then boarded the ship, where they engaged the crew in a fight for control of the vessel with the intent of maneuvering it towards the Somali coast for the purposes of eliciting a ransom. The Alabama’s crew, however, fought them off and regained control of their ship. Defeated, the pirates then fled in a life boat taking the Captain hostage. The Captain was held hostage for five days before US armed forces (Navy SEAL snipers) killed all but one of the pirates and freed the Captain. Although I acknowledge the story is dramatized for entertainment purposes, there is little attempt made to provide any context as to why young men in Somalia, many of whom cannot swim (Eichstadt 2010), would take such risks to engage in acts of piracy. Instead, the film portrays them as psychopathic, predatory villains, who are always chewing Khat (a flowering green plant that is an amphetamine-like stimulant), driven solely by money.
Notably, there is a brief interchange between Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) and one of his captors, that provides a cursory overview of the conditions within Somalia faced by the men engaged in this crime. However, it is poorly executed and reduces an intricate history of internal strife, external interventions, and corporate abuses, that can be traced back to colonialism, to a 30 second dialogue. There is little attention paid to the poor structural conditions within the country, the history of conflict, including internal political unrest, repressive regimes, warring factions, as well as external conflicts with neighboring countries Ethiopia and Kenya (Rothe and Collins 2011). Furthermore, there is no mention of the long history of external interventions in Somalia, specifically from the US and the former Soviet Union in the 1970s, that not only solidified Somalia’s dependency on foreign aid, but also financed the expansion of the country’s military from 3,000 government troops at the time of Independence, to 120,000 in 1982 (Hussein 1995). This not only explains the relative accessibility of weapons that are used in pirate attacks, but also the environment of deprivation, social disorganization, and lack of basic infrastructure (such as healthcare, education, water and sanitation) (Collins 2014), that may push individuals to view piracy as a viable means for survival.
The film also neglects to address the political motivations for piracy that stem from foreign interests plundering the rich marine resources in Somali waters, stealing their fish and crippling the Somali fishing industry. For example, in 2005 approximately 700 unlicensed foreign vessels were found traversing Somalia waters, with estimates indicating that up to 50 percent of Somali fish are stolen by foreign interests (Panjabi 2010). Compounding this issue, is the considerable historical record of foreign interests dumping hazardous and toxic waste in Somalia’s coastal waters. Waste, including toxic and nuclear waste, has been dumped both in the water and on the beaches since the 1980s with little regard for the devastating environmental and health effects that impact the surrounding communities (Hussein 2010). Ironically, the same countries actively engaged in fighting piracy in the Gulf of Aden are also involved in illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping. This includes the US, whose SEAL sniper team, depicted as the valiant saviors in the movie, shot and killed three of the four pirates – the bad guys – and rescued Captain Phillips.
By ignoring these contextual factors completely, it is made clear to the film’s audience that the Somalis represent “bad,” and the Western characters (Captain Phillips, the crew, and the US military sniper team), are the “good.” The Somalis here are portrayed as barbaric, violent and ruthless – an image that was knowingly cultivated by the director who purposely kept the Western actors separate from the actors playing the pirates until they were filmed attacking the vessel. As noted by Hanks of his first encounter with his co-stars, they were the “skinniest, scariest human beings on the planet…and it did raise the hair on the back or our necks” (Gettel 2013). The actors are not just scary because they are armed, but because they are portrayed to symbolize a lack of democracy – young, black, Muslim youth, engaged in senseless and violent predatory behavior. This portrayal of the attempted kidnapping for ransom almost feels scripted to purposely support the Western imagery of the dangerous Islamic threat in a post-9/11 era. This is especially so, as there is no mention of the aforementioned history of systematic abuse suffered by the Somali people that would have provided a more holistic understanding of the issue of piracy in Somalia.
I would like to note that although not explicitly stated, I am not suggesting that piracy is a good thing, rather, as with many forms of criminalized behavior it is not as simple as a case of “bad” people doing “bad” things, as it was so simplistically presented in the film Captain Phillips.
Victoria Ellen Collins, PhD
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University
Box Office Mojo. (2013) Captain Phillips. Available: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=captainphillips.htm
Collins, V.E. (2014). “Somalia Pirates: Victims or Perpetrators or Both?” In D. L Rothe and D. Kauzlarich Towards a Victimology of State Crime, Oxon, UK: Routledge (Taylor and Francis). In press.
Eichstaedt, P. (2010) Pirate State: Inside Somalia’s Terrorism at Sea, Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill Books.
Gettel, O. (2013) ‘Captain Phillips’: Tom Hanks on ‘skinniest, scariest’ co-stars, Los Angeles Times. Available: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/moviesnow/la-et-mn-captain-phillips-envelope-screening-series-tom-hanks-skinniest-scariest-costars-20131223,0,4548624.story#axzz2pSO3gs4M
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