Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Analogues: I was pondering recently historical precedent for the war on terror in which we are now engaged, thinking specifically about the Barbary Pirates of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (who, like the modern terror organizations, were not states themselves, but were harbored and even encouraged by local strongmen in the relatively decentralized and far-flung Ottoman world) and a young country's evolving response to that threat. A quick googling of "barbary pirates" pulled up this brief sketch from the Library of Congress. While the analogue is not precise, the similarities are compelling:
Ruthless, unconventional foes are not new to the United States of America. More than two hundred years ago the newly established United States made its first attempt to fight an overseas battle to protect its private citizens by building an international coalition against an unconventional enemy. Then the enemies were pirates and piracy. The focus of the United States and a proposed international coalition was the Barbary Pirates of North Africa.
An international coalition was not, however, forthcoming. Europe continued to consider the paying of considerable "tribute" to the pirates the best option, as late as 1830, and Thomas Jefferson, president during the crisis, broke from earlier principles:
To this state of general peace with which we have been blessed, one only exception exists. Tripoli, the least considerable of the Barbary States, had come forward with demands unfounded either in right or in compact, and had permitted itself to denounce war, on our failure to comply before a given day. The style of the demand admitted but one answer. I sent a small squadron of frigates into the Mediterranean. . .
Historian Thomas Jewett has a more complete account from the journal Early America Review. In it he details what may have been America's first anti-terror commando raid, wherein Lieutenant Stephen Decatur and his men, disguised as North Africans and sailing in a captured pirate ketch, stormed and scuttled the captured ship Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor.

I never would have thought of the similarities if not for the episodes related in David McCullough's John Adams, which I was reading about this time last year, and which I wholeheartedly recommend.

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