The International Writers Magazine:
LESSER EVIL: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror by Michael Ignatieff
Princeton University Press, 2004, 212 pp.
A Charlie Dickinson Review
now global in reach and years (if not decades) in expected duration,
is the subject of a growing body of literature. Michael Ignatieff's
recent contribution, THE LESSER EVIL, asks the ethical question:
Can a liberal democracy fight terrorism without destroying the values
for which it stands? Namely, democracies, which value life free
from violence, must defend against the violence of terrorism with
violence. What forms might that violence take? On what side of the
"redline," for example, is torture?
of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, began
THE LESSER EVIL as a series of six lectures presented at the University
of Edinburgh in January 2003. At the heart of this moral analysis, he
offers five tests for how a democracy might commit an appropriate "lesser
evil" violent response in fighting terrorism, without lapsing into
the "greater evil" of value-free nihilism shown by terrorists.
The tests: dignity, conservative, effectiveness, last resort, and open
adversarial review, are simple to list, but take Ignatieff's deliberative
nuancing to explicate and give the reader tools to make an assessment
of how the War on Terrorism might be won or lost. Besides a review of
terrorism in human experience that cites examples from Homer's ULYSSES
to recent events, some thirty pages of footnotes buttress the author's
fair and dispassionate search for a consensus among reasonable citizens
as to proper responses to terrorism.
It has become almost a given to compare 9/11 with Pearl Harbor as a
threat to U.S. national security. Convincingly, Ignatieff argues the
more appropriate comparison is to the Red Scare of 1919 (after all,
the 9/11 terrorists were not backed up by the military might of the
Japanese Empire). With the fall of Russia in 1917 to revolutionaries
and terrorists, fears Communism would spread throughout Europe and North
America were widespread. America saw bloody conflicts between workers
and police, bombings, and a suicide attack against the U.S. Attorney
General's house. A young J. Edgar Hoover assisted that Attorney General,
Mitchell Palmer, in the roundup of five thousand "suspect"
aliens, many of whom were deported for possible Communist sympathies.
A coincidence, perhaps, but post 9/11, nearly five thousand aliens,
mostly single, young males of Arab or Muslim origin were detained, none
of whom was ever charged with a terrorist offense. While the "lesser
evil" tests are difficult to apply to the distant Palmer Raids
of 1919, the post 9/11 roundups clearly fail Ignatieff's criteria: Race,
ethnicity, religion are all insufficient for a knock on the door.
Probably the acid test of a democracy's "lesser evil" tests
for appropriate responses to terrorism is torture. Is torture of terrorist
suspects ever justified if they might have information about a "ticking
bomb" that would kill thousands? Law professor Alan Dershowitz,
for example, has argued circumstances might be so overwhelming the possible
loss of many lives trumps the ban against torture. Dershowitz wants
judicial review, a judge to issue a "torture warrant." In
a cogent and moving discussion, Ignatieff shows the fallacy of Dershowitz
and those who would rationalize any exceptions for torture. The tragedy
of torture is the permanent, irreversible damage it does to the prisoner
and the torturer alike. Torture is plainly over the "redline."
THE LESSER EVIL discusses much more the reader will find helps develop
constructive insight: terrorists as a death cult, the dangers of overreaction,
the moral justification for terrorism, why no nation has succumbed to
terrorism alone, why Conrad and Dostoevsky were masters at understanding
terrorist psychology, and what might lie ahead when the price and availability
of weapons of mass destruction inevitably falls. The phrase "post-9/11
era" signals the uneasy future we're fated to live out. With this
book, Ignatieff brings a thoughtful analysis to core questions about
a topic so often confused by passionate intensity from anyone with a
mike, soapbox, or blog.
© Charlie Dickinson June 2004
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