Find Mediators Near You:

Negotiators And Snipers: On Strategies For Managing Piracy On The High Seas—And Elsewhere

May 4, 2009

It’s been some weeks now since many Americans woke up to the news of the successful rescue of the Maerske ship Captain, Richard Phillips, from the clutches of Somali pirates off the Eastern Coast of Africa in mid April. Few international incidents turn out as well and end with such finality and clarity. With three clean kill shots by expert U.S. Navy Seals, this situation appeared to be resolved. Most people in the Western world had occasion to feel proud, if not a little superior. For once the United States seemed to be able to clearly control a situation and the skill of the military was on full display. In the wake of being bogged down by the War on Terrorism, these pirate guys served as useful symbolic stand-ins and this incident a clear win.

The situation has all the earmarks of a made for Hollywood movie; it was life imitating art. There was action, heroism and a happy ending. In an editorial on April 16th, even the quintessentially liberal New York Times “applauded” the effort of the U.S. Navy and noted Phillips’ noble and selfless act of offering himself as a hostage in place of his crew.

While not likely to have been well received at the time, when we were flush with victory, now some weeks later, with the incident quickly receding into past history and swept aside by the rush of other events, it may be time to consider what happened a bit further before it is entirely forgotten, or possibly worse, remembered wrongly or even mythologized beyond recognition. Media pundits might hesitate to criticize or question, and the public may not fully understand what is at stake. I hate to be a ‘kill-joy’— perhaps an unfortunate choice of terms in this matter— but the way things turned out may not be for the best, especially from the perspective of professional negotiators and mediators. There are a number of ‘loose-ends’ of which there has been little mention.

The U.S. Navy Seals team executed their mission under the express authority of President Obama with the blanket permission to shoot based on their own determination that ‘Phillips’ life was in danger.’ On April 13th, they did so after observing ‘a pirate aiming a rifle at the captain’s back.’ One might reasonably assume that in the course of the stand-off, this was not the first time a weapon had been aimed at Phillips. As well, the snipers’ actions occurred in the shadow of negotiations that had been ongoing for four days, with the involvement of Federal Bureau of Investigation Hostage Negotiators, at the request of the U.S. Navy. Little information or comment has been made available as to the status of those negotiations or how the threat to Captain Phillips’ life had materially changed at the time the Seals acted.

A negotiator’s or mediator’s stock in trade in successfully dealing with any difficult conflict is their authenticity, the core of which is their ability to establish a sufficient measure of trust with the people with whom they are dealing. This authenticity is cultivated over time and many matters, not just in a particular case. American negotiators, should they be involved in similar incidents in the future, will be judged, in part, by how trustworthy they have been in this matter. If negotiation tactics are perceived to be little more than a strategic set up for a kill shot, then there will be no reservoir of trust to draw from. The next hostages may be harmed or killed by the pirates because they have concluded the ante may well be raised and they must convince the Americans of their willingness to kill, that is, if they are willing to negotiate at all.

Maybe assassination was warranted. Clearly, piracy cannot be tolerated. And, if negotiation is used at all, the parameters are set by the context and situation. Hostage negotiations are clearly outside the norm. There is an urgency and lethality that differentiates negotiation in this setting from other contexts. Typically, the decision to negotiate is in constant competition with the decision to pursue assassination of the perpetrators. Pragmatic, professional and ethical issues need to be considered. Assassination often seems to be the easier and preferred course to resolve the immediate crisis, as it was in this matter. However, negotiation may be essential to lay a foundation for the resolution of future issues. From all appearances, the action in the Maerske hijacking has done little to quell the occurrence of many subsequent incidents which have continued unabated from the day after Captain Phillips’ rescue.

While the social and cultural circumstances in Somalia that have given rise to piracy as a local industry are of significant importance, this particular circumstance was not the time to address those issues and future foreign policy modifications. But there appeared to be two specific strategies in play to manage the situation at the same time: negotiation and assassination. While the employment of both strategies might be necessitated at different times in a hostage situation given the extremity of this kind of matter, to conflate and use them together at the same time is dubious at best. They are not, per se, incompatible or contradictory. However, posturing negotiation, not in ‘good faith,’ but in furtherance of the intention to assassinate the bad guys, presents a serious risk to the future constructive use of negotiation. There needs to be some clarity when those in charge shift from negotiation to assassination— when they ‘pull the plug’ on negotiating because it is not working and the situation is deteriorating and move toward the ‘pull the trigger’ option. In this matter, significant confusion remains and from all outward appearances, the hostage negotiations were little more than a pretext to lull the pirates into position for a ‘kill shot.’

While not ready to second guess or make a judgment about timing and choice of strategies in this matter, little information has been offered about the progress of the negotiations prior to the decision to use lethal force. Second, the pirates, in a small Maerske lifeboat along with their one hostage, were surrounded and tethered to the U.S. Destroyer and could go nowhere. Third, in dealing with Somalian pirates in previous hijacking incidents, there had been few incidents of violence, injury or death of any hostages; they were, in fact, reported to have been treated respectfully. Captain Phillips had similarly reported that he was not abused.

To be clear, pirating and kidnapping is unquestionably criminal behavior and lethal force may be warranted and justified at some point. Up until the Maerske hijacking, however, the demonstrated motive of pirates appeared to be confined to extracting money from shipping companies. As primitive and desperate as these young men seem to be, they apparently understand that hurting a hostage is not ‘good business.’

Over the centuries, negotiation has garnered a reputation for being at best, a necessary evil, and often worse, unprincipled appeasement and sellout. Throughout history, those who would advocate negotiation to settle wars and other egregious situations not unlike kidnapping for ransom have been second guessed, tainted, and even vilified. In the Melian Dialogue, a passage found in Book V of theHistory of the Peloponnesian War by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, peace negotiations and those who would suggest them were effectively dismissed, Talleyrand, despite his seeming success at the Congress of Vienna in 1814, remains under suspicion as a French patriot, Neville Chamberlain’s name is still reviled as an ‘appeaser’ for his futile attempts to negotiate with Adolf Hitler in order to head off World War II, and Adlai Stevenson was severely criticized for his suggestion of negotiation in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis between the United States and the then Soviet Union. (R.D. Benjamin, “Swindlers, Dealmakers and Mediators,” 2004; and “The Dirty, Risky Business of Negotiation: Ideology and the Risk of Appeasement,” 2009; and “War and Negotiation, Part 3: If You Want Peace Study War,” 2008, or

Further, if history were not enough, the jaundiced view of negotiation is reflected in our popular culture, especially in film. Two movies in particular, present negotiation as being little more than a set up for a kill shot. In the The Negotiator (1998), Samuel Jackson and Kevin Spacey play police hostage negotiators sparring with each other while a looming and corrupt SWAT team uses the situation as convenient opportunity to cover up the assassination of Jackson’s character to insure his silence. Similarly, in the science fiction/action movie, The Fifth Element (1997), Bruce Willis is the hero enlisted to negotiate with an alien leader who has taken hostages and wants to negotiate their release in exchange for a mystical and powerful cosmic weapon. After sizing up the situation, Willis walks into the room, supposedly to negotiate, and summarily shoots the alien leader between the eyes, then uttering a classic Hollywood movie line, “Anyone else want to negotiate?” The message is the same in both film clips: a ‘kill shot’ is simple, clarifying act well deserved by criminals and terrorists; negotiation, contrast, is messy talk that lacks moral clarity. (R.D. Benjamin, “Negotiation and Evil: The Moral and Religious Resistance to Settlement,” in The Guerrilla Negotiator, CD Rom,, 2009) Heroes take decisive action; negotiators and mediators equivocate.

For some, the killing of the Somalian pirates seems to have cleanly resolved the immoral hijacking of the Maerske and the taking of hostages. That good fortune, however, may prove to be short lived, illusory, and in the end, more of a curse than a blessing. In addition to spoiling the prospect of successful future hostage negotiation, it may also have a spillover effect, further infecting how people think about negotiation. Negotiation will continue to be a suspect activity close akin to an unprincipled sellout. Why bother negotiating if you can just shoot them?

The United States may have won this skirmish but negotiation as a viable and effective mode of conflict management may have taken a body blow—one more that it did not need. Most people start with little patience for negotiation; they do not understand how it works and are resistant to using it in their own lives to manage difficult situations, and question its validity generally. The next time, however, whether it be a hijacking or some other hostage situation, a sniper or a good kill shot might not be as close at hand as it was in this case. And, in part because of this matter the quotient of trust necessary to negotiate a deal might also be unavailable.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


The 21st Century: It’s All About Collaboration: Pick Up the Lawyers’ Guide Today

The Lawyers' Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies Say goodby to quill pens and obstreperous adversarial posturing.  Join authors Dennis Kennedy and Tom Mighell in learning "Smart Ways to Work...

By Victoria Pynchon

Redefining Standard

Conflicts of Interest Blog by Vivian Scott I’m having chicken noodle soup for breakfast—because I choose to. It’s probably not what most people are opting for this morning, and it...

By Vivian Scott

Who Will Guarantee The Safety Of Off-Shore Oil And Gas Facilities?

From Larry Susskind's blog on the Consensus Building Approach In 1979, following the accident at Three Mile Island a special commission appointed by President Jimmy Carter recommended that the nuclear...

By Larry Susskind