The Lesser Evil - Political Ethics in an Age of Terror

by Michael Ignatieff
ISBN: 0143017357

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A Review of: The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror
by Martin Loney

Michael Ignatieff is one of the distressingly few progressive intellectuals who have been prepared to take the threat of terror seriously; too many have preferred to share with Canada's former Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, the comforting fallacy that at root the problem lies in poverty, its redress in "equity". Ignatieff has the courage to recognize that what motivates terrorists is nihilism. Al Qaeda does not want what we have, it wants to punish the West and others who fail to share its myopic vision. The purpose of terrorism "is to strike a blow that asserts the dignity of Muslim believers while inflicting horror and death upon their enemies." In the face of such attacks Ignatieff suggests it is difficult to conceive a political response: "Such an attack cannot be met by politics but only by war."
Ignatieff is conscious of the threat terrorism poses to the institutions and values of liberal democracies. The question he seeks to answer is what lesser evils a democratic society might commit in defending against the greater evil of terrorism. Civil liberty absolutists resist any dilution of traditional legal protections but as Ignatieff succinctly observes, "A constitution is not a suicide pact," and an emphasis on rights cannot be so great as to undermine the ability of government to take effective action.
Historically the goal of terror has been to force governments into increasingly authoritarian and brutal responses, in the hope (usually unfulfilled) that the population will rally to the terrorists' cause. Ignatieff's summary of this history is provocative and insightful. It will be uncomfortable reading for those arm chair radicals who have sympathised with Basque militants, Irish republican bombers or Tamil insurgents. Ignatieff's description of the Tamil Tigers should be compulsory reading for Canadian politicians: "For twenty years, the Tamil Tigers used suicide bombings to crack the will of the Sinhalese majority to force it to concede a separate Tamil state. Moderate Tamils willing to negotiate with the government were a particular target of attack. These attacks were intended to coerce the Tamil majority into obeying the terrorist group, and to prevent the emergence of a negotiated settlement."
Ignatieff accepts that fighting terrorism will require some sacrifice of traditional civil liberties. What he seeks is a middle way, which will protect against a slide into arbitrary injustices and ensure that the system of checks and balances which characterize effective democracies is deployed to full effect. Legislatures must be aggressive in scrutinizing the activities of the administration. Ignatieff wants a continual balancing of the argument of necessity and the claims of morality, insisting that "a constitutional state must remain answerable to the higher law, a set of standards that protect foundational commitments to the dignity of every person." Western democracies must be relentlessly conscious of the importance of the values they seek to defend and of their universal application.
The mounting evidence of ill-treatment at Abu Ghraib and the consequent attempts within the U.S. military and the Bush administration to deflect blame illustrate the ease with which the kind of vigorous interrogation of suspected terrorists, approved by Ignatieff, can descend into abuse. The outrage provoked in the Arab world at the deliberate humiliation of prisoners provides eloquent evidence of the political consequences of the retreat from democratic values. For Ignatieff "rights-based commitments to individual dignity are intrinsic to the definition of what a democracy is."
Ignatieff is alert to the temptation of turning a blind eye to abusive practices: "A culture of silent complicity may develop between civilian political leaders and their security chiefs, in which both sides know that extralegal means are being used but each has an interest in keeping quiet about it. In this way, the clear constitutional duty of civilian leaders to maintain executive control over security services can be subverted." Ignatieff suggests this provides some understanding of how a democratic France could sanction torture in Algeria, even as its politicians denied it was occurring. Reports coming out of Iraq raise questions as to how far the Americans succumbed to a similar temptation. Leaked reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross, and reports from other human rights groups, published in Harper's, suggest that prisoners at Gauntanamo Bay also experienced abuse.
This is a timely contribution which might be usefully read by those in the American administration who appear to believe that expedience provides the best moral compass-providing, of course, you are not found out.

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