When we think about the War on Terrorism, it is so easy to think that we have only been fighting Islamic extremists since 9/11. Or, if you want to stretch it some, we’ve been fighting them since the Munich Olympics. Most Americans don’t realize that we have actually been dealing with Islamic extremists—terrorists—for much longer. Since the creation of our country, we have dealt with the danger of these Islamic terrorism.
During the fight for our Independence, the Barbary Powers—Tunis, Morocco, Algiers, and Tripoli—banded together and began to raid American ships. They would take prisoners alive and then demand ransoms. They would take the cargo on the ships and keep it and then demand that the prisoners be ransomed depending on their rank aboard the ship. According to one source, the price of a Master (captain) was 6,000, a mate (office) was 4,000 and a sailor was 1,500. And the only way it was getting paid was by the United States government.
In Jefferson’s papers, the reason the Barbary Powers were attacking American ships was explained:
The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the laws of their Prophet [Mohammed] – that it was written in their Koran that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners; that is was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners; and that every Musselman [Muslim] who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.
These are words we have heard before. These are things that modern day Islamic extremists have said is their justification for waging war against the United States. It is an incredibly frustrating situation to be found in and, more importantly, it is a dangerous one. When a society feels that dying in battle means paradise, what’s to stop war?
I can tell you one thing that won’t stop a war and this was an example of it. Tribute. Paying tribute does one thing: makes a country weak. By the last year of President Washington’s presidency, the federal government was spending sixteen percent of its yearly budget on paying off the Barbary Powers. When a small country is trying to grow, this is not how you do it. Each year, money was paid to the Barbary Powers. Did that stop them from attacking American vessels? No. Did it embolden them? You bet.
So, despite the fact we were paying huge amounts in tribute every year to protect our ships, they continued to attack. And attack. It was under John Adams—at the insistence of Washington first—that a navy was built. This navy would be used to protect the merchant ships that were going through the Mediterranean. And it was necessary because by the end of Adams’ presidency, extortion payments made up a fifth of the entire Federal budget.
This leads to me to my second point. When given the option of paying off a threat or defeating that physical threat with force, the only option is to use force. The first two Presidents paid off these Islamic extremists and what did we get? Millions of dollars in lost revenue. So, when Thomas Jefferson became President, he did something different. He went to war against the Barbary Powers. And with the Marines and their “shores of Tripoli…” the Barbary Powers were defeated for a time.
For two decades, the United States had been paying extortion payments to these powers and nothing was ever done. Nothing ever stopped. The payments just kept going. However, it wasn’t until the United States used force that suddenly, we had a brief period of time where we could pause. Granted, we had to go to war again in 1815 against the Barbary Powers, but after that, they never became a threat to our ships.
The ultimate point I am trying to make is simple: it might seem wiser to pay off a foe. It’s only money. But, the second you demonstrate weakness in paying people off, you’re going to be stuck with the unfortunate role of consistently being extorted. It is only when you use your armed forces and make it clear that you’ll do damage if the attacks continue will a foreign power reconsider.
The United States is the strongest superpower in the world. We can defeat any foe. But, we have to understand that to defeat force, we must use force. If we are unwilling to use force and we just try to pay off our enemies, nothing will ever get done. And we will spend millions and billions of dollars that didn’t have to be spent. That’s not good for America. When force comes at us, we have to meet it head on with force.