The Moral of Captain Phillips: More Guns, Less crime

The takeaway that most will probably have, after watching the movie Captain Phillips, is that none of this would’ve happened if the crew of the MV Maersk Alabama had had a gun on board.

Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for CFN
Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for CFN

The natural reaction to such a statement, by a member of the anti-gun contingent, would be that having a gun on board would’ve only exacerbated the already violent incident that occurred aboard the MV Maersk Alabama (the Alabama). True, any viewer would have to admit, if that member of the crew had used that weapon at an inopportune moment.  If the crew had waited until the pirates were on board, and a shootout was inevitable, more violence, and more death would’ve occurred. Anyone who watched the account detailed in the movie, however, knows that there were a number of opportune moments where the appearance of a gun would’ve put an end to the incident, or prevented much of what happened from even occurring.

There is a scene in the movie where Captain Phillips attempts to scare the approaching Somali pirates off by faking a radio exchange between he and the U.S. military. In this faked exchange, that was transmitted to the pirates, Captain Phillips used his voice to speak to the fake officer, and he altered his voice to sound like a U.S. military officer responding. It was an ingenious ploy, but it proved ineffective.

Following the failure of this ploy, most uninformed viewers probably thought displaying guns was the next, natural progression, to intimidate the pirates with a display of strength. Why doesn’t Phillips instruct his crew to line up on the bridge of the shipping container with AK-47s pointed at the pirates? Wouldn’t that discourage the pirates from boarding the Alabama if they knew that the shipping container’s crew could match their arsenal? Wouldn’t it have even discouraged the pirates if the crew lined the bridge with Colt .22’s pointed at the the pirates, even though the Somali pirates had AK-47s? It’s a political axiom among some citizens, some paid consultants on 24-7 news networks, and some politicians that more guns equal less crime. This idea is also in the risk, benefits algorithm that most criminals use to determine if they should commit a crime, and which victims make for softer (i.e. less risky) targets.

Contrary to the anecdotal evidence provided in movies, most criminals don’t enjoy the idea of an old-fashioned, mano-y-mano duel to determine who is the better man. Most criminals, as opposed to the anecdotal evidence provided in movies, don’t seek to validate their mental, or physical, prowess by engaging in a battle with worthy adversaries. Most criminals don’t seek a “real-life” chess match with a brilliant crime solver, tha leads them to being caught, only to have the criminal turn to the crime solver saying, “Good show, jolly good show.” Most criminals are thugs that want money, easy money, and they search for that sizable advantage –like a mountain lion surveying possible prey– that allows them to obtain the most money with least possible risk.

There are, as has been suggested elsewhere, debatable points regarding the actual incident, Captain Phillips’ account, the crew’s account, and the account put forth in the movie. One thing that is not debatable is that the incident would not have been near as harrowing, dramatic, or worthy of movie production in Hollywood if, at least, one of Alabama’s crew members were permitted to carry, and fire, a gun.

That story would’ve gone something like this: Somali tugboat approaches container ship, Phillips eventually recognizes that this interaction may not be coincidental, or harmless, Phillips warns pirates in a number of ways, Phillips and crew then exhaust maritime and personally devised tactics to dissuade pirates from coming on board, and pirates, desperate for easy money, test these tactics and prepare to board the ship. While attempting to board, pirates are then shot. Roll credits. There’s no room for creativity in such a story, and no interpretations of the mindsets of the players involved. There’s no good guy/bad guy drama to detail, no harrowing survivor stories to reveal the human survival instincts, no need for any creative hijinks that lead to a good guy victory, and likely no movie. That story would just be too simple: trained crewman pulls gun, warns bad guys by displaying gun, shoots bad guys when all warnings prove ineffective, and bad guys die. Roll credits.

In the movie, there was no talk among the pirates regarding the fact that most cargo ships don’t carry guns. There is no talk, on the net, regarding whether or not these pirates, or all pirates, know which shipping companies allow container ships to carry guns, and which do not, but one has to guess –based on the fact that this is their chosen “trade”, and that they don’t want to die, or get shot– that they know.

Some reports have it that international laws prohibit container ships from carrying guns, but most have it that no such laws exist, and that each shipping container is allowed to carry guns, according to the shipping company’s discretion. The company that owned the MV Maersk Alabama, is the Waterman Steamship Corp., and a current report by Ben Hart of Conservative HQ suggests that “the crew is suing this shipping company for $50 million for gross negligence, alleging “willful, wanton and conscious disregard for their safety.”” {1} There is no mention of the fact that this “willful, wanton and conscious disregard for their safety” is specific to Waterman Steamship Corp. prohibiting its shipping containers from carrying guns, but one has to guess that’s mentioned somewhere in that suit.

Some opinions have it that most shipping companies have deemed it cheaper, as an overall expense, to simply pay pirates their ransom requests than it would be to train a gunman on board their ships. This sounds a little conspiratorial, but it contains enough probable truth that it’s worth reporting as a possibility. Other theories have it that allowing a trained gunman on board elicits a measure of accountability, or liability, on the part of the shipping company if anything should happen to probable pirates, or the crew, in a shootout. One other theory has it that training an individual to use a gun, a probable staple in any insurance plan, would cost the shipping company some of their profit. All of these possibilities discount the value of human life, and the human suffering that can result from such incidents, but one can guess that such a shipping company would not suffer from bad press from the anti-gun media for their general prohibition of guns on their shipping containers.

If there were any pre-boarding conversations among the Somali pirates, about the possibility of guns on board the Alabama, I’m guessing that that chunk of dialogue was purposely omitted from the movie script. The reasons for that are simple: Such an inclusion would be one of the only things that audiences talked about while exiting the theater, and the discussion involving the tactics Captain Phillips used to survive would be ancillary to the “If they had just had a gun, none of that would’ve been necessary” conversations. It would also go against the Hollywood crew’s politics to leave their audience with such a moral, and the movie probably never would’ve been made. As actor Tom Hanks ruefully claimed, this harrowing story carries a politically incorrect, and pro-gun, message with it.{2}

There are some people who simply abhor guns, however, and some of their reasons are apolitical. Some of them have personal experience with guns changing otherwise negotiable incidents into irretrievably violent ones, and those of us who see guns as a natural conclusion of such incidents, must respect those opinions when they’re based on personal experience.

The British Navy has recently found a defense for these people, and possibly all shipping companies, fearing pirate intrusion into their shipping lanes: The “Britney Spears” defense.

Britney Spears, reports the Metro, is the secret weapon of Britain’s Royal Navy merchant officer Rachel Owens to scare off pirates. Ms. Owens cites the singles Oops! I Did It Again and Baby One More Time as being particularly effective in this regard.

Ms. Owens, who regularly guides huge tankers through these waters, said the ship’s speakers can be aimed solely at the pirates so as not to disturb the tanker’s crew.

“It’s so effective the ship’s security rarely needs to resort to firing guns,” said the merchant officer. “As soon as the pirates get a blast of Britney, they move on as quickly as they can.

“Her songs were chosen by the security team because they thought the pirates would hate them most.

“These guys can’t stand Western culture or music, making Britney’s greatest hits perfect.”

Steven Jones, of the Security Association for the Maritime Industry, added:

“Pirates will go to any lengths to avoid or try to overcome hearing Britney’s singles. I’d imagine using Justin Bieber (singles) would probably be against the Geneva Convention.”{3}

Although these humorous tactics are listed as effective, we don’t know how effective they are, as they are listed as effective tactics without numbers. We do know that the appearance of a gun thwarts any subjects of questionable means. We also know that we don’t live in a perfect world in which the tactics and techniques that captains employ work 100% of the time, as opposed to what some television shows and movies might suggest. Moments such as the one captured in this movie often progress past checkers and chess style maneuvers to brutal realities, and all players involved should at least prepare for the worst case scenarios to occur. In the case of the MV Maersk Alabama, it appears as though some of the players involved did not prepare the crew for the crime committed here.





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