In the wake of the Sept. 11th attacks, a group of American businessmen has decided to enlist the profit motive to bring the perpetrators to justice. Headed by Edward Lozzi of Beverly Hills, California, the group intends to offer a bounty of $1 billion—that’s billion with a “b”—to any private citizens who will capture Osama bin Laden and his associates, dead or alive.

Paying private citizens to achieve military objectives seems novel but is hardly untried. Recall Ross Perot’s successful use of private forces to retrieve his employees from the clutches of fundamentalist Muslims in Iran in 1979.

We are all familiar with bail bondsmen, who employ bounty hunters to catch bail-jumping fugitives. Less familiar are two U.S. companies, Military Professional Resources Inc. and Vinnell Corporation, which provide military services to governments and other organizations worldwide.

Historically, private citizens arming private ships, appropriately called “privateers,” played an important role in the American Revolution. Eight hundred privateers aided the seceding colonists’ cause, while the British employed 700, despite having a huge government navy.

During the War of 1812, 526 American vessels were commissioned as privateers. This was not piracy, because the privateers were licensed by their own governments and the ships were bonded to ensure that their captains followed the accepted laws of the sea, including the humane treatment of those who were taken prisoner. Congress granted privateers “letters of marque and reprisal,” under the authority of Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution.

Originally, privateering was a method of restitution for merchants or shipowners who had been wronged by a citizen of a foreign country. Privateers captured the ships flying the flag of the wrongdoers’ nation and sailed them to a friendly port, where a neutral admiralty court decided whether the seizure was just. Wrongful seizures resulted in the forfeiture of the privateers’ bond to the owners of the seized ship

If the seizure was just, the ship and cargo were sold at auction, with the bulk of the proceeds going to the privateer’s owners and crew. The crews were volunteers who shared in the profits, and the investors viewed the venture as remunerative—albeit risky.

Privateering soon evolved into a potent means of warfare. Self-interest encouraged privateers to capture as many enemy ships as possible, and to do it quickly. Were privateers successful in inflicting serious losses on the enemy? Emphatically, yes. Between 1793 and 1797, the British lost 2,266 vessels, the majority taken by French privateers.

During the War of the League of Augsburg (1689-1697) French privateers captured 3,384 English or Dutch merchant ships and 162 warships, and during the War of 1812, 1,750 British ships were subdued or destroyed by American privateers. Those American privateers struck so much fear in Britain that Lloyd’s of London ceased offering maritime insurance except at ruinously high premiums. No wonder Thomas Jefferson said, “Every possible encouragement should be given to privateering in time of war.”

If privateering was so successful, why has it disappeared? Precisely because it worked so well. Government naval officers resented the competitive advantage privateers possessed, and powerful nations with large government navies did not want to be challenged on the seas by smaller nations that opted for the less-costly alternative -- private ships of war.

In sum, the armed forces of the U.S. government are not the only option for President Bush to defeat bin Laden, his al Qaeda network, and “every terrorist group with a global reach.” The U.S. military is not necessarily even the best option.

Let’s bring back the spirit of the privateers. By letting profits and justice once more go hand-in-hand, victims and their champions can have an abundance of both, rather than a paucity of either.