About Us

Contact Us


The 21st Century

Hacktreks Travel

Hacktreks 2

First Chapters
Lifestyles 1
Lifestyles 2

The International Writers Magazine

THE LESSER EVIL: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror by Michael Ignatieff
Princeton University Press, 2004, 212 pp.
ISBN: 0-691-11751-9

A Charlie Dickinson Review

Terrorism, 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?

Ignatieff, Director 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
Graceland by Chris Abani
A Charlie Dickinson review
Happy Days by Laurent Graff
A Charlie Dickinson review


© Hackwriters 2000-2004 all rights reserved