“Operator, can I have the number for the Navy SEALs? I’d like to order a rescue”

Captain Phillips

Last night I was watching “Captain Phillips“, the latest Tom Hanks movie.  The movie has received universal acclaim from critics and moviegoers.  Since I new the ending before it started, it was just “okay” (6/10).  Rottentomatoes gave it a 94%.

Spoiler Alert:

In 2009, the Maersk Alabama, a commercial container vessel was hijacked off the coast of Somali by a speedboat containing 4 pirates with automatic weapons.  Captain Phillips and some of his crew were Americans.  For some unexplained reason, these commercial container vessels were not permitted to carry armed guards while travelling through pirate infested waters.

After the Maersk Alabama was boarded, the captain and his crew avoid any serious casualties through wit and guile.  They were able to convince the pirates to leave the ship in a lifeboat — the only kicker was that the pirates kidnap Captain Phillips.

LifeboatThus, there was a hostage situation in the middle of the ocean involving 4 Somali pirates and an American commercial vessel captain.  What’s the response?  The American Navy sent the destroyer USS Bainbridge to try to peacefully negotiate Captain Phillips release.

USS Bainbridge

USS Bainbridge

After negotiations between the pirates and the USS Bainbridge do not yield the desired result, the US deployed the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault vessel, and the USS Halyburton, a frigate, to the scene.  Most importantly, a NAVY SEALs team was flown in.  So, there were three US Navy vessels and special forces team against four Somali pirates armed with light weapons in a lifeboat.

It should come as no surprise that Captain Phillips was rescued.

During the second half of the movie, I was thinking this must be fiction!  Why would three US Navy ships and a SEALs team be deployed for this American civilian?  The force applied was overpowering.  Who is paying for all that American military might?

The only way I can reconcile the use of the American military to rescue a private citizen is that a) it was in international waters so sovereignty was not an issue, b) the “evildoers” were small-time and only had small-time weapons, and c) Captain Phillips worked for one of the largest shipping companies in the world, Maersk.  Sovereignty, however, is a weak reason because Americans are reviled because they don’t seem to give a hoot about it, e.g. invading Panama to capture their leader, Manuel Noriega.  Furthermore, Maersk is a Danish shipping company not an American one.  Why are American protecting the interests of Danish companies?

There have been many civilians trapped in foreign lands who do not receive the same priority.  For instance, take the case of former US Marine Amir Hekmati.  Hekmati carries dual citizenship from the US and Iran.  In 2011, Hekmati was visiting his grandmother in Iran.  The Iranian government accused him of espionage.  He has been detained for 2 years even though his espionage conviction has been overturned.  Where is Hekmati’s Navy SEALs team?  Instead, Hekmati’s family is pleading with their congressman to negotiate his release.

In a separate case, in 2009, three American tourists (Sarah Shourd (32), Shane Bauer (28) and Joshua Fattal (28)) were hiking near the Iraq-Iran border when they were abducted by the Iranian authorities and charged with being spies.  They accidentally crossed the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran.

Their situation was widely reported in the press.  According to Wikipedia, “Kenan ThompsonDesmond TutuMuhammad AliNoam ChomskyTom MorelloAlyssa MilanoAshton Kutcher, Pres. Barack Obama, rapper Big Sean, along with many other celebrities and governments, called for the release of the detainees on grounds of inhumane treatment and lack of evidence.”

Finally, “Sarah Shourd was released 14 months later on “humanitarian grounds”.Bauer and Fattal were convicted of “illegal entry” and “espionage” two years after their arrest and each sentenced to eight years in prison, but were released on September 21, 2011. Each of the detainees was released after payment of 5 billion rial (about US$465,000) bail.”

Clearly this trio would have appreciated a Navy SEALs team to rescue them instead of having to pay nearly half a million dollars in bogus bail.

There are a few lessons to take away from these examples.  First, travel to Iran at your own peril.  Second, you cannot automatically assume Captain Phillips treatment if you are illegally detained.  There is no 1-800-NAVY-SLS hotline to dial.  Third, since you cannot assume the US government will rescue you, perhaps it’s better to stay home altogether.  Leave traipsing around the world to non-despised peoples, e.g. Swedes, Thais, Brazilians.

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