The impotence of America under the Articles of Confederation was nowhere more strikingly revealed than in her dealings with the Barbary pirates. The rulers of the petty North African states of Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis loosed upon the commerce of the Mediterranean as ruffianly a lot of cutthroats as history can offer. These human harpies not only enslaved their captives for ransom but collected large sums of protection money from those nations that could afford to make payments. It was a profitable national industry. Why should the Powers of Europe, with their great navies, have tolerated these piratical nests? Perhaps the basic reason was that in the long run the payment of blackmail seemed to be the cheapest method of dealing with the problem.

-- Thomas A. Bailey

"A Diplomatic History of the United States"

It is said Americans were so emotional, so enraged, by the holding of U.S. sailors hostage in the Mediterranean for payment of ransom to the Barbary pirates that they literally shouted themselves hoarse with the slogan, "Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute."

The historians also tell us that slogans were not much help.

Even as the young America worked itself into fever pitch over depredations of pirates who assaulted and seized U.S. ships and their crews, an American vessel docked at Algiers. It carried 26 barrels of blackmail money for the leader of that country. The payoff didn't work; it only emboldened the pirates to take even more humiliating action:

In October 1800 a U.S. warship, ironically named the George Washington, was forced by the dey of Algiers to haul down the American flag, replace it with that of Algiers, and sail to Constantinople bearing an ambassador with tribute for the Sultan. When the American captain protested, the dey contemptuously replied:

"You pay me tribute, by which you become my slaves. I have, therefore, a right to order you as I may think proper." A year later, with American fury even greater and the pirates still unchecked, the pasha of Tripoli expelled the American consul and had the U.S. flag chopped down before the consulate.

He was not satisfied with the "presents" -- that is, tribute or blackmail -- he was receiving.

The point is not so much the similarity between that early American history and the present taking of American hostages and issuing of unacceptable demands in the Mediterranean -- although the levels of frustration among the people and the feeling of impotence among officials are strikingly the same. The point is that analogies exist.

In the end, only military action by the fledging U.S. Navy, coordinated by land forays of troops, broke the stranglehold of pirates in the Mediterranean. This was not accomplished quickly or easily. It took years before treaties acceptable to U.S. interests were dictated by cannon mouth of U.S. warships. And this only after Thomas Jefferson, the president who came to office declaring "peace is our passion," refused to take the path of appeasement and the paying of tribute.

As minister to France, Jefferson had proposed that the great powers of Europe unite to end the scourge of the Barbary "hellhounds." They did nothing. When he became president, with still no concerted action in sight and the outrages multiplying, he dispatched the American fleet for combat in the Mediterranean.

Obviously, not all of this recounting of history is pertinent to today's events in the Mediterranean.

First, the pirates of old were motivated, it seems, mainly by a hunger for wealth. They asked and received material goods as the price of freeing their captives.

Today's hostage-takers are driven by other demons. They have a cause, a mission. They believe themselves to be divinely inspired. They are acting out the wishes of Allah. Their grievances spring out of a host of wrongs, real and imagined. They are the children spawned by the end of the age of empires. They are groping to forge their own new society -- or remake the one that was taken from them by colonial powers in centuries past. The complex of cultural, religious, geographical and economic problems they confront will not be easily remedied. We understand them even less than they understand us.

Second, the use of force is far more difficult today. In simpler times, a nation with a will and capable force to implement it could prevail by letting loose the fleet or moving its armies across foreign borders. The targets were clear and understood. You could strike at the head of the state and his source of military or economic strength. Now the targets are not defined. Even the enemy operates, it seems, without a central authority. To strike randomly only increases the prospect of killing innocent people -- and elevating the terrorists to martyrdom.

But to acknowledge these differences and accept the reality of greater difficulties that now exist in dealing with the present age of piracy, does not mean America is impotent. Long after they passed into history, the Barbary pirates left behind a legacy of what we would call terrorism -- and a lesson about the use of force.

Now that the latest hostage incident appears to be ending, there are other lessons to ponder:

The worst sin for a nation in dealing with piracy, or terrorism, is to do nothing -- which is the position, for all its superheated rhetoric, that this nation has been in for years. Piracy begets piracy, terrorism begets terrorism. The perpetrators must be punished. If this cannot be accomplished by military means, in the form of strikes from air, land or sea, then it must be done by economic sanctions.

Nations that harbor terrorists must be excised from the civilized world community. Their ports and airports should be closed, either by quarantine or blockade; their commerce should be brought to a standstill; the travel of their citizens to other nations restricted or banned altogether. They must be isolated from the world at large.

This can be done if the nations of the world, acting out of their own self-interest, wish it. It can be done by this country alone, as in the case of the Barbary pirates so long ago, if the rest of the world chooses not to act. That is the supreme challenge and historic test facing this American administration.