By this time you've probably heard that Somali pirates have hijacked a Saudi supertanker, its cargo worth around $100 million. This event give me the same frisson: is modernity is ending? This event is very 'unmodern'.
Throughout most of human history, piracy on the sea and brigandage on the land were the normal state of affairs. Merchantmen were heavily armed. This sounds absurd today. An oil tanker bristling with cannon, .50 cals, and rocket launchers?
Today, one can drive from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, or from Paris to Berlin, without a company of armed men for protection, and not incur substantial risk of being kidnapped and held for ransom from one's family. But such a risk was also expected, in most places, through most of human history. Even at the height of the Roman Empire, it was unsafe to travel from city to city even in the Empire's heart, Italy itself, because of a constant risk of robbery and kidnapping. Julius Caesar himself was kidnapped this way as a young man.
In some parts of the world today this risk still exists. Notoriously it exists in Latin America, where if you are wealthy, you need constant security and a bulletproof limo. It exists in places like Sudan, where a number of insufficiently risk-averse German adventure tourists recently got far more adventure than they had planned. I would dock such places several points on the modernity scale.
Piracy, as a widespread and a constant threat, ended less than two centuries ago.
I've recently been reading Richard Henry Dana's famous autobiography of his experiences as a young man at sea, Two Years Before the Mast. It includes an encounter with a probable pirate vessel that occurred in 1834:
September 22d, when, upon coming on deck at seven bells in the morning, we found the other watch aloft throwing water upon the sails; and, looking astern, we saw a small clipper-built brig with a black hull heading directly after us. We went to work immediately, and put all the canvas upon the brig which we could get upon her, rigging out oars for extra studding-sail yards... The vessel continued in pursuit, changing her course as we changed ours, to keep before the wind. The captain, who watched her with his glass, said that she was armed, and full of men, and showed no colors.After a tense chase, and clever evasive actions by the captain, Dana's ship loses the pirates. Jack London remarks on this episode, expressing astonishment that this occurred only two generations before his time.
Yet this was the way of the world until frighteningly recently in human history. The idea that the average man may at his pleasure travel on land or on the sea without making provision for the constant risk of robbery or murder is a peculiarly modern one. Endemic piracy declined only after governments became big enough to suppress pirate bases in foreign lands. The Barbary Pirates continued to make raids and take prisoners across the Mediterranean until the French colonized Algeria in the early 19th Century.
The problem in Somalia, of course, is that the country is a failed state ruled by warlords with no central government. Active piracy, which would be suppressed by most countries because it would cut them out of the world community and world trade, making them a pariah, means the opposite to Somalis. Somalia is already a pariah, and benefits very little from the cooperation of the community of nations or trade. Pirates are foreign trade, bringing in foreign exchange in the form of ransoms. Until there is a new, 'modern' Somali state, there won't be a local solution to the problem.
I suspect that naval escorts of civilian vessels, which is being proposed, isn't a good solution. There are too many vessels, the sea lanes too wide. Piracy will continue as long as the pirates have secure ports out of which to operate. The Western powers are reluctant to colonize Africa (again!) to stop it. We are prisoners of modernity.
The Somali pirates are arbitraging the spread between pre-modern and modern. Which would be a pretty postmodern thing to do, if they thought of it that way. But I doubt they do.