Monday, May 17, 2004
It has been more than 100 years since anyone has been charged with sailor mongering. However federal prosecutors recently dusted off the 1872 law, to use it against Greenpeace activists who climbed aboard a ship off the coast of Florida in 2002, to protest what they say was an illegal shipment of mahogany hardwood from Brazil.
The sailor mongering statute forbids the boarding of any vessel about to arrive at the place of destination, before actual arrival. It was passed to protect mariners from being lured off ships with promises of alcohol and prostitution.
I have several disconnected reactions to this story, partly because I am quite ambivalent about Greenpeace. I support many of their ends, and admire their reckless abandon in the pursuit of their objectives. Indeed, I used to give them money, before I became a "Nature Conservancy" environmentalist.
That having been said, Greenpeace takes positions that I do not agree with, and they can be painfully sanctimonious. I therefore thought it was hilarious when French "frogmen" (as if that concept alone were not risable) blew up the Rainbow Warrior, rather than suffer its intrusion into a nuclear test.
I am, therefore, ambivalent about this sailor mongering prosecution. On the one hand, it is a poetic use of a law that must otherwise be a dead letter. Greenpeace exploits the freedom of the seas to achieve its objectives, so it should not be too outraged when an annoyed jurisdiction challenges it at the limits of law and sovereignty.
On the other hand, I really do hate the idea that a prosecutor can charge anybody with a crime, as long as he excavates some ancient statute that nobody has read for a hundred years. "Conspiracy" without a predicate offense doesn't do the trick? Just get 'em for sailor mongering. Or wire fraud.
Finally, if the facts as described in the article are true, I'm with Greenpeace on the underlying offense. If our government was turning a blind eye to illegal hardwood smuggling, I have no problem with Greenpeace disrupting that trade on its own time. Damn the Kyoto treaty, but don't cut down the Amazon rainforest so Americans can have better furniture.