Archive for September 18th, 2006


Think of Terrorists as Pirates

Terrorists, like pirates, must be given their proper status in law: hostis humani generis, enemies of the human race.
– Douglas R. Burgess Jr.
I’ve always said you can’t fight a traditional war against pirates. Wars happen between nations. Terrorists are criminals and should be pursued as such. The problem is that too many nations out there view terrorists as a convenient tool for short term goals. Even the USA is guilty of this, funding Al Qaeda in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion.

I’m no lawyer, so I have no background to unravel how to legally define terrorism as a criminal act on a universal basis. Fortunately Douglas R. Burgess Jr. has the required background and has written a brilliant article called The Dread Pirate Bin Laden.

More than 2,000 years ago, Marcus Tullius Cicero defined pirates in Roman law as hostis humani generis, “enemies of the human race.” From that day until now, pirates have held a unique status in the law as international criminals subject to universal jurisdiction—meaning that they may be captured wherever they are found, by any person who finds them. The ongoing war against pirates is the only known example of state vs. nonstate conflict until the advent of the war on terror, and its history is long and notable. More important, there are enormous potential benefits of applying this legal definition to contemporary terrorism.

The article is long but engaging, giving a history of piracy in the context of nations supporting it, then universally declaring it illegal. A legal framework is tentatively proposed for equating terrorists with pirates with historical examples to give precedents to the idea.

To understand the potential of defining terrorism as a species of piracy, consider the words of the 16th-century jurist Alberico Gentili’s De jure belli: “Pirates are common enemies, and they are attacked with impunity by all, because they are without the pale of the law. They are scorners of the law of nations; hence they find no protection in that law.” Gentili, and many people who came after him, recognized piracy as a threat, not merely to the state but to the idea of statehood itself. All states were equally obligated to stamp out this menace, whether or not they had been a victim of piracy.

As Mr. Burgess concludes in the article, “Terrorists, like pirates, must be given their proper status in law: hostis humani generis, enemies of the human race.” I couldn’t agree more, and I agree with and support the idea that terrorism, like piracy, is a criminal activity.

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