The wanton murder last week of four Americans aboard a yacht captured by pirates is a cruel reminder that international waters off the coast of Somali remain a place where lawlessness flourishes despite the efforts of many of the world's maritime powers to keep the heavily traveled sea lanes there safe for commercial and other traffic. The slayings are the latest incident involving the increasingly bold and violent pirates - and the deadliest yet involving Americans.
The quartet were shot to death aboard the yacht Quest by their captors after talks about their release with U.S. naval officials apparently collapsed. U.S. Navy special forces teams killed two pirates and captured 13 when they boarded the yacht, but the hostages already had been killed. That level of violence is increasingly common in the pirate-infested waters of the Indian Ocean.
Indeed, maritime officials report that pirates currently hold about 47 vessels - ranging in size from sea-going yachts to commercial vessels as large as oil tankers - and around 800 seamen hostage for ransom. That's an almost fourfold increase in the number held just two years ago. Clearly, the international effort to eradicate or at least reduce piracy in the waters off Somalia is a failure. Trouble is, there's no easy way to combat the rampant lawlessness.
Military intervention, one possibility, is unlikely to work. In response to increased patrols off Somalia and to the growing number of merchant ships employing arms or hiring armed guards, the pirates have extended their territory. Pirates have been spotted in waters more than 1,500 miles from their home base. The area they ply now is so enormous that it is impossible for the military - even the combined forces of several nations - to patrol them with any hope of success.
The diplomatic front is equally challenging. The government in Somalia is a sham; the country is governed for the most part by a mixed band of heavily armed warlords and extremists whose interests are more in tune with the pirates than with the growing international pressure to assist in combating piracy.
All outside efforts - including several backed by the United States and the United Nations - in almost two decades to establish and build responsible local and national institutions in Somalia have failed. Still, the effort to protect one of the world's busiest and strategically important waterways should not be abandoned. Acceding to the pirates would only embolden them.
The short-term answer to the pirates and their increasing violence - one spokesman said last week that the pirates would start killing hostages rather than trying to ransom them - is to step up the international military presence in the region. Neither the United States nor any other nation can do the job alone. Better coordination of naval operations in the area would be beneficial as well.
A long-term answer is more difficult to ascertain. Building alliance with nations in the region that have a vested interest in increased security should prove useful over time. Creating international alliances to combat piracy off Somalia and elsewhere might bear fruit as well.
But these would be more stopgap measures than long-lasting ones. The way to effectively bring an end to Somali piracy is to build a strong government in Somalia. For the moment, though, neither the Somali people nor the international community can offer a viable blueprint to do so.