America held hostage: From Somali pirates to House Republicans

OPINION - Like some of their Somali analogues, the Republicans have been ignorant about how to navigate the government shutdown...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Remember when Somali pirates were a ‘thing’?

At the onset of the Obama administration’s first term, Somali pirates were engaged in a series of attacks on ships that traveled in the Gulf of Aden region. Between 2008 and 2009, these pirates amassed nearly 200 million dollars in ransoms collected from a variety of nations.

On April 8th, 2009, Somali pirates boarded and detained the crew of an American vessel, the Maersk Alabama. Those pirates ultimately took Captain Richard Phillips as a hostage – the subject of the recent film starring Tom Hanks.  They were ultimately unsuccessful, as they were all killed by U.S. military forces.

At the time, President Obama was widely praised for his decisive action.

To many in the political class and those participants in, or in favor of, American military dominance in the so-called War on Terror, President Obama’s swift decision to summarily execute this small band of pirates signaled — once again — America’s military might and its ability to get the bad guys.  There were many black folks who quietly registered their dissent – thinking that the killing of Africans as one of the first foreign policy actions of America’s first black president could not bode well.

But at that time (and maybe to this day) black political dissent in the Obama era is grounds for being labeled a traitor, not necessarily in the U.S. but in the black community itself.

Not surprisingly, Rush Limbaugh could not give President Obama credit even in a moment where many on the right did.  For Limbaugh, the Somali pirates had an “entitlement mentality”; he equated them to “illegal immigrants” and ultimately he argued that (then) Speaker Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid were “Beltway pirates,” extorting America to the tune of about 10 trillion dollars.

Ironically, if we were to name any “Beltway pirates” today this list would have to include Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Eric Cantor, and about three dozen Tea Party members of the Republican caucus in the House of “Representatives.”

All of this praise, black dissent, and Limbaugh’s bit of bluster surely did not make the cut in Hollywood’s rendition of the Captain Phillips saga.  During the Somali pirates somewhat short reign (2008-2011) one of the fears about their capacity to ransom shipping crews for millions of dollars was their asymmetrical navigational abilities.  They had small ships, they attacked at night, and they did so in very small crews of armed Somali men.  But the real asymmetry is in our understanding of the geo-political contexts out of which these Somali “pirates” emerged.  Somali-born rapper K’nann makes some of that context plain here.

In short, the fall of the Somali government in 1991 made it ripe for internal strife and chaos, but it also left its sizable borders and coastlines largely unprotected.  In the dog-eat-dog global, neo-liberal marketplace, the dissolution of the Somali government was an invitation for government-sponsored private enterprises to invade Somali waters and either loot their fishing resources or pollute their waters with nuclear waste.  Somali “pirates” were initially groups of fisherman and coastal residents whose “piracy” was one way for them to patrol their own waters.

According to K’nann, the lucrative nature of this effort soon incentive-ized impoverished youth to join more organized criminal elements in Somalia and they in turn enhanced this “piracy” effort to become what it was during the first few years of President Obama’s first term.

All of this talk about piracy, politics and hostage-taking strangely, and sadly, inform the current political moment in these United States.  A Republican led House of Representatives has essentially taken hostage both the federal government and (now) the United States economy.  The current government shutdown is a direct result of Ted Cruz’s last stand against the Affordable Care Act.  Buoyed by his capacity to mislead the Tea Party caucus in the House, Senator Cruz and his pirate comrades are now threatening the United States’ capacity to pay its debts in a timely manner.

Like some of their Somali analogues, the Republicans have been ignorant about how to navigate the government shutdown.

Initially, Fox News and several Republicans would only refer to the government shutdown as a ‘slim down’ – deliberately downplaying the effects of their political maneuvering even as the costs of these maneuvers, some 300 million dollars per day, were being publicized.

As the deadline for the debt ceiling loomed, Republicans tried to float the idiotic idea that the debt ceiling didn’t really exist.  And after hearing about the shutdown’s impact on research trials for our national effort to fight cancer, they appeared in white coats for a press conference in a pitiful attempt to release the NIH from the grip of their own political machinations.

This past weekend they staged a rally at the WWII memorial to criticize the shutdown and the president for using veterans as political tools.  They did this, as they used veterans as a political tool.

Too many have chronicled the effects of the shutdown and the disastrous possibilities that a debt default will produce – for anyone to ignore the fundamental dysfunction of the American Congress.  It’s almost as if centralized, representative government is dead in America.  And in its absence, Tea Party pirates celebrate the U.S. government’s dysfunctional stasis and continue to deploy gamesmanship and empty rhetoric instead of compromise and actual governance.

As of the writing of this piece, the Senate has come up with an 11th-hour compromise that will likely not be passable in the House.  Let’s hope for better, but ‘better’ only means an 8-10-week delay in what we can now only understand as governing by crisis.  It would be a miracle if the likes of Limbaugh or the Cruz-controlled politicos could understand that they themselves have become the pirates in the Captain Phillips/Somali pirates analogy.

James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University and an MSNBC contributor. Follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson