The Enemy of All: Piracy and the Law of Nations
by Daniel Heller-Roazen
Meet the Pirates
A review by W. C. Bamberger
Daniel Heller-Roazen is, technically, a professor of comparative literature at Princeton University. But in such previous books as The Inner Touch: The Archeology of a Sensation, a meditation on our sense of being alive, and Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language, he has ranged beyond what most of us would include under even that vast categorical umbrella. Likewise with his newest title, The Enemy of All, which takes on, among other things, the idea of piracy and the ever-shifting borders between legal and non-legal seizures and combat.
Heller-Roazen opens by noting, "A book on piracy could be many things," and he continues with a long paragraph of possibilities. But this volume is none of those. Instead, it is a book about language, "philosophical and genealogical in its aims," and even more about the history of intellectual struggles that arise when honest men or sovereign nations encounter those operating outside recognized legal systems and societies. There are points made here about Greek diction and about the concept of "asylum," a discussion of how a shore can be seen as a "threshold," a look at how the concepts of a "three mile limit" and of ships as "floating territory" (retaining some of the sovereignty of their ports of origin) evolved, and how as a corollary, pirate vessels were neither "a place" nor "within another place" -- i.e., it might be said that every pirate vessel is a ghost ship.
The recorded history of the idea of piracy begins with Cicero, who first decided that there were enemies who neither observed nor deserved the shared rights with those met in honest warfare (the guarantee that a promise would be kept, for example). These were, Cicero wrote, "the common enemy of all." Over the course of this book Heller-Roazen follows this idea from Roman law to Guantanamo Bay and its "enemy combatants." The "enemy of all," he observes, is now "a crucial contemporary figure."
Among the most interesting points Heller-Roazen brings out are the paradoxes that arise when the rule of law is forced to confront piracy. The encounter soon becomes not a matter of the lawful vs. unlawful, but of the impossibility of remaining true to any laws in such a situation. Many, from the Romans onward, have held that, "in dealing with the common enemy of all, one must act exactly as he does: faithlessly." These conceptual switchbacks and others will prompt the reader to ask such Pogo-esque questions as, "If we meet the truly piratical, will we discover that it is us?"
After much philosophical debate, this fine point was settled upon in the late 13th century: "It is not the act that renders itself legitimate, nor the actor, but the authorization." This demarcation, history has shown, has proven to have both good and bad ramifications. For many centuries, for example, ships were recognized as having the right to loot vessels from other countries on behalf of their own, while ships without the imprimatur of a sovereign were called pirates if they did the same. (The submarine was seen as a special case -- something close to the piratical, in that it operated outside the traditional rules of naval engagement.) The U.S. even wrote into the Constitution that it had the right to hire pirates if need be, and didn't officially come out against this practice until 1898.
After having almost died out by the early 20th century, piracy came coiling back after the end of the Cold War, reinvented to include not just the seizure of ships, but skyjacking and terrorism on land and sea. In this context, Heller-Roazen looks at the 1985 taking of the Achille Lauro by members of the PLO, and considers the status of the Guantanamo Bay detainees.
Heller-Roazen's language is always precise and well considered. When he writes that "after the attacks perpetuated in the American territory by guerilla fighters aboard airplanes on September 11, 2001, the U.S. Congress allowed George W. Bush . . . to instantiate a presidential military order for the 'detention, treatment and trial of certain non-citizens,'" he is consciously positioning the terrorists and the imprisoned within a centuries-old, ongoing argument rather than making them into some special, demonic case. The status of the "enemy combatant," Heller-Roazen reminds us, bears "more than a passing resemblance to the position of the 'enemy of all'":
Like the wild animal according to Roman jurists, whose body occupied an area by nature irreducible to civil law, even when it traversed the city, so, today, our "enemy of all" implies a region in which . . . the legal and political principles that regulate the just treatment of citizens and enemies, civilians and the military, may . . . be set aside.
And so we struggle with this reality and its entangling, paradoxical questions as resolutely as did Cicero before us. Combining the political, legal, philosophical, geographical, and historical aspects of his subject, Heller-Roazen leads us from antiquity to Afghanistan with clarity. While America's present-day struggles are not his main concern, the long-view positions he takes will certainly be of interest to readers who are asking more-crucial-than-ever questions.
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