The planet's shipping fleet should be protected from deadly pirates by arming senior crew members, or not — depending on who was speaking Thursday to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Maersk Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips or his boss, Maersk Inc. Chairman John P. Clancey.
"It would be my personal preference that a limited number of crew aboard the vessel have access to effective weaponry," Phillips told the panel, his wife and a crew member seated behind him.
But doing that could expose sailors to a tactical escalation in violence, and, Clancey said later, open the corporation to liability.
"Arming merchant sailors may result in the acquisition of ever more lethal weapons and tactics by the pirates, a race that merchant sailors cannot win," the Maersk Inc. chairman said in his prepared remarks.
The captain and corporate chief — shoulder-to-shoulder yet somewhat at odds — illustrated the knotty problem Congress, the shipping industry and foreign governments face as they consider how to crack down on a worrying spike in piracy and its threat to billions of dollars in cargo, military equipment and humanitarian aid.
300 crew members in captivity
The International Maritime Bureau recorded 111 attacks in the waters off the Horn of Africa in 2008, almost double the number the year before. The bureau has recorded at least 84 attacks in the first quarter of 2009.
About 300 non-U.S. crew members remain in captivity of Somali pirates aboard 18 hijacked vessels, according to the Senate panel.
Phillips knows all about it; his story and his willingness to go back to sea captivated lawmakers. They wanted to know more details, but Phillips said he could not divulge more because of legal proceedings against one of his captors.
His testimony was informed by recent, searing experience.
Armed with knives and fire hoses, Phillips and his crew of about 20 tried and initially failed to fight off a raid by young pirates armed with automatic weapons. Ultimately, the pirates never took the ship. At Phillips' urging, they released the crew but held him for ransom. Five days after the initial siege, Navy SEALs killed the pirates and freed the captive skipper.
On Thursday, Phillips advised Congress to work with other countries to help crews protect themselves.
Arming the captain and perhaps four of the crew would help, Phillips said. So would having retired or active military special forces aboard.
"And I don't mean a security guard. I don't mean a mall cop. I mean someone who's specifically trained," Phillips said. At least three of them, he suggested.
The cost of such precautions, of course, likely would fall to the company chaired by the man sitting next to Phillips: his boss, Clancey.
Clancey noted that many governments will not let a ship with armed crew dock in their ports. And the notion of crew members, armed and out to sea for weeks or months, could be a recipe for deadly and costly accidents.
"There have been incidents where innocent bystanders have been killed," Clancey said. "There is exposure."
On other issues, like the roles of diplomacy and a military presence in commercial shipping, the men agreed. Clancey said he had meetings with Pentagon officials about the military's role in the solution. Other officials, such as Ambassador Stephen Mull, told the panel that a "no concessions" policy toward pirates makes sense.
But ideas from Phillips, widely hailed by lawmakers and applauded by the audience in the hearing room, won the bulk of support from members of the committee. Several senators called him an inspiration.
More than one agreed that finding a way to arm the crews only makes sense.
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Democrat, asked Phillips whether he was going to return to sea in the dangerous region off the Horn of Africa. Phillips said he would.