Atlantic Monthly

A Farewell to Arms

What could be more stirring than the sight of a few thousand Durban longshoremen standing up against one of Africa’s great despots? Consider me duly stirred. But this triumph of organized labor in South Africa has a worrisome side as well.

The dockworkers’ refusal to unload the weapons earned them the solidarity of South Africa’s truckers, then its Anglican archbishop, and finally its High Court, which sent the An Yue Jiang back to China. What’s alarming is that the High Court would likely never have been asked to rule on the issue had it not attracted so much international attention. The reason: the shipment was probably legal. Its bill of lading, “leaked” last week to South African media, concealed neither its cargo nor its destination. One can’t be sure what the Zimbabwean Ministry of Defense intended to do with the three million rounds of AK-47 ammo and thousands of rockets and mortars, but it can’t have been good. However, the Chinese and Zimbabweans were open about their cargo, and it appears that they followed all necessary protocols to send it along.

Shipping agents load and unload the machinery of death all the time — think not only of arms shipments, but also, if you want to be green about it, mining equipment that will almost certainly help poison streams and destroy villages. With few exceptions, the shipping agents send them along and allow countries’ own customs departments decide what should or shouldn’t be allowed in. The Durban longshoremen are essentially policing their customers in lieu of a morally adequate customs force in China, South Africa, or Zimbabwe. The unions’ diligence is admirable in this case, but it sets a dubious precedent.

The job of spotting wicked shipments should belong to customs agents, not to the moral whims of private individuals or unions (who, by the way, always have a stake in the deal). Viktor Bout, the arms-dealing sociopath alleged to have supplied weapons to almost every conflict in Africa, has a point when he says that he is just a taxi driver: no one expects a taxi driver to scrutinize his fare and decide whether he’s on a morally righteous outing. Likewise, we’d be enraged if postmen expressed their political preference by refusing to carry letters with RNC return addresses. True, there are strict laws that criminalize mail fraud. But it’s not the postman’s job to find the mail fraud: he’s there to deliver the mail, without prejudice.

In extreme cases — this is one — we do want shipping agents to exercise their judgment. We’d be even more enraged if the taxi driver unquestioningly drove a man with a ski mask and assault rifle to the local pre-school. But these extreme cases are exceptions, not models. One can imagine a (very fickle and inefficient) system in which private logistics companies are expected to scrutinize their cargo, and to eat the costs of carrying shipments that a transiting country’s dockworkers collectively decide to reject. Perhaps that would cause the price of odious shipments to rise — not an unwelcome development, and maybe a bit like “odious debt.” But for now, as long as I’m unsure whether those private moral policemen would be a courageous South African union or Viktor Bout, it’s still safer to put the authority, as well as the moral burden, with the countries of the shippers, consignees, and their ports of transit. Longshoremen bear enough burdens already.

Originally appeared at


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