April 10, 2009 | National Review Online

Pirates Test the ‘Rule of Law’

To be civilized, we must be strong

When Somali Muslim pirates raided the Alabama on Wednesday, the U.S.-flagged cargo ship was cruising the Indian Ocean en route to Mombassa. The 21 Americans in the crew were trying to deliver tons of food and other agricultural materials for the World Food Program, to be distributed among destitute Muslims in that Kenyan port city, and beyond.

“Hearts and minds” — that has been the theme music of the anti-anti-terrorism chorus for eight years. George W. Bush freed 50 million Muslims from tyranny and gave them a chance to make better lives even as the rigors of doing so devoured his presidency — all the while launching, for Africa, the most generously funded program for AIDS prevention and treatment in history. For his trouble, he was branded an unfeeling, unilateralist cowboy by Democrats and the international Left, the erstwhile champions of nation-building and universal health care.

His successor has been only too quick to cement the slander. When not bowing to the Saudi monarch (admittedly, only slightly more nauseating than Bush’s “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” jaunt with His Oil Highness), Pres. Barack Obama bleated across Europe that America has been “arrogant.” By his lights, our actions since 9/11 (which include writing constitutions for Iraq and Afghanistan that enshrined sharia, the Muslim legal code, as governing law) have suggested we are “at war with Islam.”

For Barack Obama, hearts and minds are about Barack Obama — things to be fondly turned to him at the expense of a country that does more for human rights, and more for Muslims, than any nation has ever done. Indeed, Obama’s signature (and thankfully failed) legislative proposal during his short warm-up act in the Senate was the “Global Poverty” bill, a trillion-dollar redistribution from the American taxpayer to the “international community.” Back then, Senator Obama chided his countrymen for not doing their part while the lavish American foreign-aid spigot — far and away the world’s most munificent — poured out the perennial $21 billion, not counting additional billions in emergency military expeditions to aid victims of earthquake, tsunami, and war.

But as the hearts-and-minds game goes on, the “international community” on the receiving end stands unimpressed as ever. Turns out it’s a jungle out there. What impresses, as all America’s enemies from the Barbary pirates through Osama bin Laden have always known, is the strong horse against the weak horse. What makes possible global trade, which turns into American wealth, which turns into unparalleled American largesse, is American might — American might and an American commitment to use that might as necessary to ensure a civilized global order.

“Civilized” is a much-misunderstood word, thanks to the “rule of law” crowd that is making our planet an increasingly dangerous place. Civilization is not an evolution of mankind but the imposition of human good on human evil. It is not a historical inevitability. It is a battle that has to be fought every day, because evil doesn’t recede willingly before the wheels of progress.

There is nothing less civilized than rewarding evil and thus guaranteeing more of it. High-minded as it is commonly made to sound, it is not civilized to appease evil, to treat it with “dignity and respect,” to rationalize its root causes, to equivocate about whether evil really is evil, and, when all else fails, to ignore it — to purge the very mention of its name — in the vain hope that it will just go away. Evil doesn’t do nuance. It finds you, it tests you, and you either fight it or you’re part of the problem.

The men who founded our country and crafted our Constitution understood this. They understood that the “rule of law” was not a faux-civilized counterweight to the exhibition of might. Might, instead, is the firm underpinning of law and of our civilization. The Constitution explicitly recognized that the United States would have enemies; it provided Congress with the power to raise military forces that would fight them; it made the chief executive the commander-in-chief, concentrating in the presidency all the power the nation could muster to preserve itself by repelling evil. It did not regard evil as having a point of view, much less a right to counsel.

That’s not our position anymore. The scourge of piracy was virtually wiped out in 19th century because its practitioners were regarded as barbarians — enemies of the human race (hostis humani generis, as Bret Stephens recently reminded us in a brilliant Wall Street Journal essay). They derived no comfort from the rule of law, for it was not a mark of civilization to give them comfort. The same is true of unlawful enemy combatants, terrorists who scoffed at the customs of civilized warfare. To regard them as mere criminals, to assume the duty of trying to understand why they would brutalize innocents, to arm them with rights against civilized society, was not civilized.

We don’t see it that way anymore. Evil is now just another negotiation. Pirates and terrorists are better known for their human rights than for their inhuman wrongs. On Thursday, America’s commander-in-chief didn’t want to talk about the pirates — “Guys, we’re talking about housing right now,” he chided a reporter who dared to raise the topic as the Somalis held the American ship’s captain hostage. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, was dispatched to assure the public that the world would come together to deal with this “criminal activity” — a relief if you were wondering whether the naval destroyer on the scene was equipped with Miranda-warning cards.

This is the self-destructive straitjacket for which transnational progressives are fitting us. Indeed, the Law of the Sea Treaty — a compact Obama would commit us to — has hopelessly complicated the rules of engagement under which the pirates have thrived, just as Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions (a treaty Ronald Reagan was prudent enough to reject) has become an offensive weapon for jihadists everywhere. Having harnessed ourselves, we are once again the weak horse.

Except for one thing: The Americans on the Alabama, like the Americans on Flight 93, didn’t wait for the international community to send the pirates a strong letter. They saw evil, they took it on, and as a result they took their ship and their lives back. The president may not think the United States is a particularly exceptional country, but you can bet Islamic radicals on land and sea noticed that dealing with a U.S. crew is an exceptional experience. There remains something in the American character that won’t slide so easily into the straitjacket.