The high seas

Somali pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama on Wednesday for the second time in seven months, but were thwarted when private guards on board the U.S.-flagged ship fired guns and a high-decibel noise device, The Associated Press reports.

Pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama in April and took ship captain Richard Phillips hostage, holding him at gunpoint in a lifeboat for five days. Navy SEALs freed Mr. Phillips by killing three pirates in a nighttime sniper attack.

Four suspected pirates in a skiff attacked the ship again on Wednesday around 6:30 a.m. local time, firing on the ship with automatic weapons from about 300 yards away, a statement from the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain said.

An on-board security team repelled the attack by using evasive maneuvers, small-arms fire and a Long Range Acoustic Device, which can beam earsplitting alarm tones, the fleet said.

The Maersk Alabama now carries a security force of "highly trained ex-military personnel," reports Capt. Joseph Murphy, who teaches maritime security at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. "Somali pirates understand one thing and only one thing, and that's force."

But the incident raised the hackles of European "friends" our current civilian administration is at pains to appease.

Roger Middleton, a piracy expert at the London-based think tank Chatham House, told The AP the international maritime community was still "solidly against" armed guards aboard vessels at sea; American ships have taken a different line than the rest of the international community.

"Shipping companies are still pretty much overwhelmingly opposed to the idea of armed guards," Mr. Middleton said. "There's the idea that it's the responsibility of states and navies to provide security. I would think it's a step backward if we start privatizing security of the shipping trade."

So the Europeans -- even the Russians -- pay bribes and ransoms to the pirates to get their ships, crews and cargoes back, which (as any economist could tell you) only encourages these despicable rogues to do more of the same.

Hijackings off the Horn of Africa have increased in recent weeks, The AP reports. "On Tuesday, a self-proclaimed pirate said that Somali hijackers had been paid $3.3 million for the release of 36 crew members from a Spanish vessel held for more than six weeks -- a clear demonstration of how lucrative the trade can be for impoverished Somalis."

Yes, we might have expected some controversy had U.S. forces staged proactive raids against the Somali shore, burning all the boats capable of high-seas piracy to be found there -- a viable response for which there are solid precedents dating back to the days of the Mediterranean corsairs and the birth of the U.S. Marine Corps on "the shores of Tripoli."

But a controversy over whether merchant ships have a right to arm themselves and use any force necessary to repel high seas pirates? An assertion this is a "step backward," that a preferable alternative is for owners to watch their ships, crews and cargo seized?

That's just nuts.

It certainly is the job of the U.S. Navy -- with or without the cooperation of other nations -- to keep such international sea lanes clear, even if that requires some bonfires on the beach. But if the merchantmen can contribute to their own defense, God bless them.