Fighting Terrorism as a “Lesser Evil”

Michael Ignatieff�s theories are grounded in an attempt to understand human nature for only that leads to the doable. His vision is tragic � he acknowledges the great ironies and paradoxes of being human. Of Blood and Belonging examines the powerful ties of kinship and our desire to belong � ties important in ways that can both comfort and destroy us. Reading it, I remembered a local Serbian economist who was one of the customers at my little business; in 1990 or so I remarked (in my naivet�) that Yugoslavia, [here I reveal my slovenliness; looked it up a week later and he is Hungarian – though obviously our conversation was about Yugoslavia; sorry] with its lovely coastline, would surely not tear itself apart in the coming years because it had so much going for it in terms of tourism, beauty, a bright economic future. He did not laugh, though he treated my stupidity with polite condescension: I teach economics, that is my intellectual life, he said; but people, to them, money is not important – they act from the passions of blood and the heart, of who you are and who �they� are.. He was right of course. (And the course supplement we sold, heavy on Hayek, was my superficial introduction to what economics was � or could be – about.) Ignatieff, like that economist, understands what Faulkner describes as �the old fierce pull of blood�. That old Mississippian understood the heart counters this pull with another, the magnetic universals that transcend our tribal loyalties – abstractions he saw embodied in the law and reaching toward a justice and truth independent of the subjective. Ignatieff, the Canadian, uses similar tensions and arrives at similar conclusions. In The Lesser Evil, he argues those passions must be woven into a world of laws, without which governance is chaotic and brutal; it is, he would argue, �prepolitical.�

He is in the internationalist tradition, one given to US-bashing. Clearly, people like Anthony Lewis welcome this as central to Ignatieff’s vision. But The Lesser Evil argues, for instance, that giving any quarter to the kind of terrorists who have become nihilists is wrong. Often, he surprises. I’m looking forward to other’s, probably broader, contexts for the work I quote from below:

In his 2004 Lesser Evil, Ignatieff concludes an early chapter, �The Strength of the Weak,� with a lucid paragraph defining the stakes – �why terrorism constitutes a greater evil, justifying the lesser evils of a liberal democracy�s response.� It is also, of course, an argument for the great importance of the open marketplace of ideas central to our way of governing. Implicit is the fact that terrorism attacks a society�s ability to administer what Jonathan G ewirtz discussed earlier as our “civic sacrament� � the vote.

The evil does not consist in the resort to violence itself, since violence can be justified, as a last resort, in the face of oppression, occupation, or injustice. The evil consists in resorting to violence as a first resort, in order to make peaceful politics impossible, and, second, in targeting unarmed civilians and punishing them for their allegiance or their ethnicity. This is to condemn them to death not for what they do, but for who they are and what they believe. Finally, terrorism is an offense not only against the lives and liberties of its specific victims but against politics itself, against the practice of deliberation, compromise, and the search for nonviolent and reasonable solutions. Terrorism is a form of politics that aims at the death of politics itself. For this reason it must be combated by all societies that wish to remain political: otherwise both we and the people terrorists purport to represent are condemned to live, not in a political world of deliberation, but in a prepolitical state of combat, a state of war. (111)

This week has brought to us both the importance of international relief missions, their complexity (see Diplomad and Belmont Club) and the ethical tensions brought up in the questioning of Gonzales by the Senate�s judiciary committee. (Belmont also has posts here and here on questions of torture.) This is Ignatieff�s territory. Certainly, while the international community’s heart and help has brought out the best in human nature, neither it nor the committee hearings have given us clarity. And, on the more political level, the crassly partisan (whether of the UN or the senate) implies what is tragic is superficial and what is complex is not only simple but also trivial. The bigger map is lost in the minor ones of turf battles in Indonesia or Washington. And so the real questions about torture, about our responsibility for our brothers are obscured. I suspect they should be lost in any discussion of the tsunami � this is a time for action, directed and planned action, sure, but not theory. Nor are those hearings the time to discuss theory. (For the distance between Abu Ghraib, the hearings & any broad theories, The Mudville Gazette offers a ten question reality check. Thanks to Instapundit.)

Michael Ignatieff had proved himself an essayist with common sense in the New York Review of Books and both compelling and tough in discussions on C-Span. His strong sense of the reality of evil is also bracing, as is his pragmatism. So, his seemed an appropriate book to summarize at the end of this Christmas vacation.

Ignatieff, Professor of the Practice of Human Rights and Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, is a liberal hawk. Of course, he also writes glowingly of Sy Hersh�s Chain of Command. (Though valuing the criticism of Byrd and Kennedy doesn�t seem all that proportional.) Anthony Lewis doesn�t have enough good to say about Ignatieff, partially because he interprets his works as deeply critical of Bush. Well, they often are. And he is (how could he not given his interests) an internationalist; his lectures in 2000 which are the core of his Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry trace the history of human rights laws and argue for them. His �Democratic Providentialism� (December NY Times) took, not surprisingly, a blue state tone and concluded with complaints about Bush�s refusal to give a

decent respect for the opinions of mankind, not to mention democratically ratified treaty law like the Geneva Conventions and, last but not least, the humility that goes with knowing that you serve the people, not a providential design that only you and other true believers can understand.

This, however, goes down a little better when Ignatieff demonstrates an understanding of the usefulness of Bush�s intervention. His pragmatism leads him to a perspective that often seems lacking in the publications in which he writes. For instance, he is ironic about an aid worker who, in an earlier conflict, was critical of the American army�s help (the only help that would substantially improve the conditions of those under her care) because its presence might �taint� her internationalist organization. And at a conference in 1999 he offered suggestions about ethics to working journalists. Ignatieff�s essay, �TheYear of Living Dangerously,� (New York Times, March 14 2004), argues for our long-term commitment to Iraq.

In his early chapter, �Democracy and the Lesser Evil,� his title notes we are on familiar territory � the tragic nature of reality. No Utopian, he observes �A lesser evil morality is antiperfectionist in its assumptions. It accepts as inevitable that it is not always possible to save human beings from harm without killing other human beings; not always possible to preserve full democratic disclosure and transparency in counterterrorist operations; not always desirable for democratic leaders to avoid deception and perfidy; not always possible to preserve the liberty of the majority without suspending the liberties of a minority; not always possible to anticipate terrible consequences of well-meant acts, and so on. Far from making ethical reflection irrelevant, these dilemmas make ethical realism all he more essential to democratic reflection and good public policy. (21)

. Indeed, he sees as �one of the strengths of the liberal tradition . . . its disabused realism.� (52) And he notes the example of Ulysses and the Sirens:

Ulysses� conduct is often cited to help us understand law and rights as strategies of precomitment. Like Ulysses tying himself to the mast so that he will hear but not succumb to the Sirens� song, democratic states precommit themselves to respecting rights, knowing that they will be sorely tempted to abridge them in times of danger. Ulysses commits himself in advance, knowing that when temptation is upon him, it will be too late. Rights, this story tells us, are like Ulysses� beeswax: devices of reason, designed in moments of tranquility, to master temptation in times of danger. (31)

Transparency and discussion help; cynicism doesn�t:

Precommitment is not a commitment to invariance, to never changing the law no matter what, buy rather a commitment to adversarial justification, within a framework that maintains equality and dignity standards in times of safety and times of danger alike. To conduct a defense of liberal society in defiance of these precommitments is to betray the order that is being defended, as well as the citizens whose security depends on that order. (53)

And he comes back to this argument at the conclusion of the next chapter, �The Weakness of the Strong,� Democratic societies, he argues,

must find a way to continue to see their apparent vulnerabilities as a form of strength. This does not require anything special. It simply means that those who have charge of democratic institutions need to do their jobs. We need judges who understand that national security is not a carte blanche for the abrogation of individual rights; a free press that ferrets out the information an executive may wish to alter or withhold in pursuit of national security; a legislature that will not allow national security to prevent it from fulfilling its function of checking executive power. If a system of constitutional checks and balances continues to function effectively, that is, if power continues to be subjected to the test of adversarial justification, there is no reason to fear that a war on terror will lead us to betray the values we are fighting for. (81)

His chapter on �The Temptations of Nihilism� is at once disturbing and clarifying. I�m not sure if what he says is surprising; it is, perhaps, rather that this is the abyss into which we would rather not look. He begins with a literary description, Conrad�s �Professor� in The Secret Agent. His argument is the one we hear repeatedly from middle eastern terrorists (one that is caught in the frantic speech of the German soldier caught by Mrs. Miniver in the World War II home-front classic): �They cling to life, he says bitterly, whereas he only wants death and is therefore invulnerable.� (113) And, so, Ignatieff asks:

What happens when political violence ceases to be motivated by political ideals and comes to be motivated by the emotional forces that Conrad understood so well: ressentiment and envy, greed and blood lust, violence for its own sake? What happens when counterterrorism, likewise, ceases to be motivated by principle and comes to be driven by the same complex of emotional drives? (114)

He then turns to Dostoevsky�s The Possessed to describe a more cultish nihilism.

He observes, �a key feature of nihilism, therefore, is the description of intended victims as inferior creatures to be brushed aside on the path to a higher goal� (127). Needless to say, when that goal becomes personal salvation, the people who inhabit this earthly, tainted, and mortal world become dispensable. In a liberal society, grounding broadens perspectives–against the narrowness of nihilism. He argues repeatedly that democracy, modern liberalism indeed, requires questioning, doubts. Not surprisingly, he is firmly against �rendition� with its accompanying �blindness.� He distinguishes between �coercion� (truly a �lesser evil� though still an evil) and torture. Here he argues for constant congressional surveillance and intervention to establish the necessary openness that he believes can often counter abuses. �Liberal democracy stands against torture because it stands against any unlimited use of public authority against human beings, and torture is the most unlimited, the most unbridled form of power that one person can exercise against another� (137). He argues in the chapter�s conclusion:

liberal democracy has been crafted over centuries precisely in order to combat the temptations of nihilism, to prevent violence from becoming an end in itself. . . . The chief ethical challenge with relation to terrorists is relatively simple�to discharge duties to those who have violated their duties to us. We have to do this because we are fighting a war whose essential prize is preserving the identity of liberal society itself and preventing it from becoming what terrorists believe it to be. Terrorists seek to strip off the mask of law to reveal the nihilist heart of coercion within, and we have to show ourselves and the populations whose loyalty we see that the rule of law is not a mask but the true image of our nature. 144

He never doubts, however, that such nihilism must be countered and must not be given quarter.

His last chapter, �Liberty and Armageddon� argues �Westphalian deterrence cannot work when states do not have effective coercive control over their own territory. The walls of the state that once contained their monopoly of violence have broken down. Evil has escaped the prison house of deterrence� (152). But, of course, the readers of this blog are likely to think of Barnett�s argument � indeed, the more opaque (the less �connected�) a state the more likely such evil is likely to breed: the �bugs� accompany the �features.� This chapter deals with the problems posed by �loner terrorism, �self-determination terrorism,� and �the terrorism of the global spectacular.� Such motivations have characterized our literature, but it doesn�t prepare us sufficiently when they become real. (One expression I�ve found interesting is the sociopath who desires fame through violence in its flat and almost expressionless embodiment in Terence Malick�s Badlands� the 1973 movie that traced the path of serial killer Starkweather.) But if the motives are not new, the weapons are.

Ignatieff returns to the tragic and indeed ironic nature of the choices we make, observing: �Liberal democracies are thus faced with an enemy whose demands cannot be appeased, who cannot be deterred, and who does not have to win in order for us to lose.� (153) Nor does success come with, well, success:

Certainly we have a responsibility to work toward relieving the global burden of injustice. But we should be clear that we are doing so for reasons of justice and not in the delusive hope of greater security. Having responded to injustice with justice, we have no right to expect peace and good feeling in return. This is to understand evil, to forget terrorism�s essential connection to nihilism, its indifference to the suffering it purports to represent, its contempt for our gestures at reparation. (168)

With this despair, he ties up his argument. He says

As the threat of terrorism targets our political identity as free peoples, our essential resource has to be that identity itself. We cannot fight and prevail against an enemy unless we know who we are and what we wish to defend at all costs. If the automatic response to mass casualty terrorism is to strengthen secret government, it is the wrong response. The right one is to strengthen open government. Democratic peoples will not lend assistance to authorities unless they believe in the system they are defending. (154)

This leads to his concluding optimism (one that joins many much more libertarian and nationalistic arguments with his):

So we are stuck, as we should be, with persuasion, with the duty, now more urgent than at any time in our history, to persuade each and every person that lives among us, whether as citizen or visitor, of two perfectly plain propositions: that we are committed to respect their dignity, and if they fail to respect ours, we will defend ourselves. (169)

In our earlier discussion on actions & words, he argues �we must be able to defend ourselves�with force of arms, but even more with force of argument. For arms without argument are used in vain.� (170) Lest you think my linking of him with Faulkner was wide off the mark, let’s look at his concluding “Since I believe in the arguments, since I believe that human beings are unique in their capacity to be persuaded, changed, even redeemed by good ones, I do not doubt tht we will prevail” (170) And so let’s conclude with Faulkner’s answerto nihilism:

I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Well, Faulkner might see this as the poet’s role, but I suspect we can see it as all our jobs – to give history, to give proportion. And while Ignatieff is talking about the mind and Faulkner about the soul, we see their encouragement as similar.

These lengthy quotes were prompted by, first, the direct simplicity of his style in this book. Second, since I do not have any context or background, quoting seemed more just. Reviews: G. John Ikenberry review in Foreign Affairs. �Let It Bleed� blog review. Cynthia McDonald�s review for the Penguin Group. Anthony Lewis�s review. (Lewis�s interpretation was the third reason Ignatieff is quoted so heavily.)


4 thoughts on “Fighting Terrorism as a “Lesser Evil””

  1. Very well done, Ginny. I had hoped that someone from the left might have the potential to dissect the threat to liberal secular society.

    Ignatieff provides excellent food for thought. Unfortunately, in my opinion, he is totally clueless with respect to Islamic terrorism. His prescriptions for dealing with this brand of terror would result in the bloody anarchy he professes to abhor.

    His other examples of terrorism are probably more pertinent to his arguments, but unfortunately are not the forms of terror civilization currently faces.

    The bottom line seems to be that Ignatieff is too squeamish for the actual threat we face. This is unfortunate, since there are fewer and fewer leftists who can be taken seriously anymore, regarding this most crucial issue.

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