By: Arthur Schoen  | 

Campus Historical Society Hosts Event Detailing the Link Between Piracy and Terrorism

The Commentator-Pirates

The Yeshiva College Historical Society hosted its first event of the semester this past Tuesday, November 3rd. The event, a lecture by Professor Douglas Burgess, drew students from both the Wilf and Beren Campus as well as guests from outside the University. The lecture, entitled “From Blackbeard to Bin-Laden: Piracy and Its Connection to Modern Terrorism,” covered a particular area of expertise for Professor Burgess.

Professor Burgess, who has been teaching in YC, Stern, and Cardozo for the past six years, is a world-renowned expert on piracy and terrorism law. He has published and spoken extensively on the relationship between the two. In this lecture, he traced the development of a legal theory linking the jurisdiction for trying members of international terrorist organizations to the laws developed in the early 19th century that gave a framework for the United States to prosecute the pirates who menaced its coasts.

This pioneering legal theory has been a significant part of Professor Burgess’ life work and career. He described to those attending this event how he first thought to link piracy law to terrorism in his third year of law school at Cornell and told them all about the many years of research and publishing that followed.
In addition to the details of this theory, Professor Burgess’ presentation was interwoven with personal anecdotes that shed light on why this issue became such a passion of his. He explained how some major world events of the last fifteen years, including 9/11, the Hebrew University bombings, and the court cases deciding the status of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners impacted his development of this legal theory.

After this idea began to germinate, Professor Burgess spent the 2002-2003 academic year researching the topic at the University of British Columbia. As the evidence supporting the linkage between piracy law and international terrorism became more and more clear, Professor Burgess organized the material and began to promulgate this idea through television interviews, public appearances, and articles in prominent newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals. He expounded upon these ideas further in his 2010 book, The World for Ransom: Piracy is Terrorism, Terrorism is Piracy. In that same year, the State Department actually adopted Professor Burgess’ theory as official policy. This meant that they asserted U.S. jurisdiction over members of international terrorist organizations based on the jurisdiction established by anti-pirate laws and cases more than 150 years ago.

In closing his presentation, Professor Burgess drew some lessons from his story. He talked about the power of tenacity and sticking to an idea even when it seems inconceivable for it to actually be put into practice. He charged those in attendance to never lose their idealism, to never give up on their dreams to change the world.
The students and guests at this event listened with rapt attention to Professor Burgess’ forty-five minute presentation. Afterward, everyone stayed while people asked questions relating to manifestations of this legal theory in current events, asking about such timely topics as ISIS and terrorism against U.S. citizens in Israel.
This first event of the Historical Society was a rousing success, marred only slightly by the fact that the advertised pizza never arrived. Moshe Beiser, a freshman at Princeton University who attended Professor Burgess’ lecture while visiting friends in YU, called Professor Burgess’ presentation a “story of courage” that bore “inspirational messages.”

The newly re-booted Historical Society, led by co-presidents Shai Berman and Yakov Ellenbogen, is excited to host many more such events over the course of the year, stimulating interest in history on both campuses. And for those of our students who wanted to learn more about actual pirates rather than anti-pirate laws, they can check out Professor Burgess’ 2008 book The Pirates’ Pact: The Secret Alliances Between History’s Most Notorious Buccaneers and Colonial America.