Ron Paul had the best plan to save the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls

The “bring back our girls” campaign may be a good time to bring back letters of marque and reprisal.

A ruthless jihadist organization known as Boko Haram has kidnapped more than 200 to 300 Nigerian girls, triggering outrage everywhere from social media to the White House. Recently released video footage offers hope that the captured girls are still alive.

Boko Haram took the girls from the predominantly Christian village of Chibok. Only about 50 are believed to have been able to escape.

The desperate plight of these young women has garnered international attention through memes like the Twitter hashtag #bringbackourgirls.

Less familiar is the concept of letters of marque and reprisal.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power to grant such letters, right after the power to declare war. They are warrants that authorize private individuals or groups to fight what are usually non-state enemies or evil-doers in a way far more limited and carefully targeted than war.

The Constitution Society notes that letters of marque and reprisal often contain the following:

  1. Names person, authorizes him to pass beyond borders with forces under his command.
  2. Specifies nationality of targets for action.
  3. Authorizes seizure or destruction of assets or personnel of target nationality.
  4. Describes offense for which commission is issued as reprisal.
  5. Restriction on time, manner, place, or amount of reprisal.

This provision of the Constitution has become a dead letter (to an even greater extent than Congress’ power to declare war). But Ron Paul revived it while serving in Congress, first as a possible response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and then as a way of fighting renewed piracy from the failed state of Somalia.

In 2001, Paul introduced legislation that would have authorized “privately armed and equipped persons and entities” to carry out “all means reasonably necessary to seize…the person and property of Osama bin Laden, of any al Qaeda co-conspirator, and of any conspirator with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda who are responsible for the air piratical aggressions and depredations perpetrated upon the United States of America on September 11, 2001.”

Paul’s bill aimed to put a bounty on Osama bin Laden’s head and asserted Congress “has the power to grant letters of marque and reprisal to punish, deter, and prevent the piratical aggressions and depredations and other acts of war of the al Qaeda conspirators.��

This approach may be more appropriate to the situation in Nigeria, where the government has been unable to do anything to free the girls. The United States has quite correctly joined allies like Great Britain, France and Israel in trying to provide logistical help to Nigerian authorities.

But committing troops to fight Boko Haram would be more problematic. Unlike when the Taliban in Afghanistan sheltered al Qaeda after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, this group’s activities don’t yet directly threaten U.S. vital interests. Moreover, past humanitarian interventions have either spun out of control or turned into no-win nation-building projects. Bombardment campaigns and drone strikes frequently yield collateral damage.

Issuing letters of marque and reprisal would allow the U.S. to potentially help the girls while retaliating against the people holding them against international law, without using our military as a global police force.

Many people are uncomfortable with the concept of “privateering.” In situations like this, however, deputizing private individuals could be a good alternative between once again intervening militarily and doing nothing while young women are kidnapped.

Letters of marque and reprisal are clearly insufficient for dealing with state-sponsored terrorism or acts of war carried out by nations. But they could be a solution to dealing with criminal bands like Boko Haram. And with any luck, they could strike a blow against smaller groups of terrorists and pirates at a fraction of the cost of war.

In a dangerous and often depressing world, there are no easy answers or panaceas. Placing bounties on the heads of those who terrorize young women may nevertheless be a constitutional way to deal with unconscionable deeds. Given the blunt instruments usually found in the government’s toolbox, it might be worth pondering something between hashtags and hellfire.


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