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LIB Review: The Lesser Evil

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Read this book. In clear, engaging prose, Ignatieff has made an eloquent attempt at providing an analytical framework to evaluate the steps which a liberal democracy takes when confronted with terror. If that sounds too dry, it can easily be put into less prosaic terms: when, if ever, is it okay for a liberal democracy to torture (suspected) terrorists, engage in mass round-ups based on ethnicity, deny access to counsel and any of the myriad other steps taken by governments around the world in the wake of 9/11?

Ignatieff is honest enough to admit that the liberal democratic foundational commitment to individual human rights, which animates his entire argument, will at times constrain the activities of the state, sometimes to an extent which is either politically or strategically damaging (e.g., by refusing to engage in torture or mass detentions, it is possible that an actual terrorist will be left alone and will be able to pull off a terror attack). But the strength of his argument is that it takes a balanced approach, trying not only to evaluate the short-term efficacy of an action, but also its long-term effects. His proscriptions are deceptively simple: respect for human rights; as much transparency as possible; constant re-evaluation of tactics by means of adversarial justification in legislatures, courts and the press; and, ultimately, the wisdom to not give in to fear and to not fundamentally alter and hamstring institutions in the wake of terrorist atrocities. In Ignatieff’s view, it is the very willingness of a liberal democracy to fight “with one hand tied behind it’s back” which is its hallmark: we won’t descend to no-holds-barred war, and that restraint is the characteristic which we are trying to defend when we confront political terror.

It is an interesting dynamic which Ignatieff identifies: the dialectic which the terrorist seeks to spark is the spiralling descent into unconstrained violence; by “forcing” a liberal democracy to forego constraint, the terrorist is attempting to weaken the allegiance of the state’s citizens to the state, to force the state to “reveal” itself as every bit as bad as the terrorist has been claiming all along, and to thereby poison the mechanics of the state itself, so that it’s lifespan is shortened.

Ignatieff also delves into the history of political terror, reminding the reader of interesting tidbits from the Russian anarchists of the late 1800s, the burgeoning American communist terrorist movement of the early 20th century (smashed by the Palmer Raids shortly after WWI), the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof gang.

Somewhat surprisingly, almost no mention is made of the American terrorist movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s (such as the Weather Underground), and little attention is paid to the mechanics of the Canadian federal government’s squashing of separatist terrorist violence in the 1970s (by means of invoking special war powers). But there are examinations of many other attempts to counter terrorism, from Northern Ireland to Sri Lanka.

Ignatieff fares less well when he attempts to translate his analysis to (a) the war on Iraq and (b) what he refers to as “apocalyptic terror” (i.e., terrorists equipped with weapons of mass destruction). With regard to the latter, he notes that the potential civilization-ending threat of apocalyptic terror calls into question the efficacy of his proposed evaluative system, but instead of confronting that, his argument seems to trail off without coming to any discernable conclusion. In short, his framework seems workable for the sort of terrorist activities which we’ve all seen before, but it’s not clear whether it’s appropriate to handle a situation involving WMDs, nor a situation (perhaps as yet unrealized) where in a major confrontation between states one of the primary tactics is apocalyptic terror. In a similar vein, Ignatieff’s attempt to link his analysis to the war in Iraq (which might be a strategic part of the war on terror but isn’t tactically) stumbles badly; which is surprising, because Ignatieff usually writes quite lucidly (if, in my view, incorrectly) on Iraq (see, for example, here). In the end, his attempts to wield an evaluative framework explicitly geared towards domestic politics on (a) a tactic which would entirely destroy that domestic politics and (b) on the vagaries of foreign policy mars an otherwise excellent book.

Grade: A

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About Bob Tarantino

  • Bryce Eddings

    Nice review
    Listed at Advance