Global Policy Forum

'The Lesser Evil': Fight Fire With Fire


By Ronald Steel*

New York Times
July 25, 2004

Political Ethics in an Age of Terror.

By Michael Ignatieff.
212 pp. Princeton University Press.

Michael Ignatieff tells us how to do terrible things for a righteous cause and come away feeling good about it. In this case the terrible things are pre-emptive war (that is, aggression), targeted assassinations, ''coercive interrogations'' (torture lite) and indefinite imprisonment of suspects without trial or counsel. That is the ''lesser evil.'' The righteous cause is the preservation -- bruised but mostly intact -- of our democratic system from those who might threaten it. The failure to do so is the ''greater evil.''

Ignatieff, the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, is no stranger to debates on the righteous use of force. He supported the American invasion of Iraq, as he did the American bombing of Belgrade and military intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. He is an articulate advocate of what skeptics call liberal (or for that matter neoconservative) imperialism -- the use of military power to shape the world according to American interests and values.

In ''The Lesser Evil,'' originally presented last year as the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, he turns from human rights victims and abusers to the new nemesis of our age, terrorism. His argument is essentially this: Terrorists could get hold of nuclear weapons and set them off in American cities. In the wake of the devastation the American public would demand that the government protect them at all costs. Constitutional restraints would go out the window. The United States would degenerate into a police state ruled by fear and suspicion. To those who believe we may already be moving in that direction, he warns that it could get worse. To combat this threat we must now begin a draconian war against terror that embraces measures normally repugnant to our values and legal processes.

To keep counterterror methods within tolerable bounds, he proposes such rules as judicial review, executive and Congressional oversight, free debate and limits on interrogation somewhere short of torture. How effective these rules might be is a matter of conjecture now that reports from Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo give us an idea of the kind of coercive interrogations carried out in our name.

The lesser-evil position, Ignatieff tells us, lies in never losing sight of the ''morally problematic character of necessary measures.'' But his explanations and caveats offer cold comfort. They sound more like rationalizations than restraints. Does an evil act become lesser simply because it is problematic? So torture is problematic. Then what? Does suffering a twinge of bad conscience justify what we do in a righteous cause? It is comforting to think so, but saying, ''This hurts me as much as it does you'' is neither true nor considered an excuse.

A good part of this dense and often legalistic book is devoted to hair-splitting over how much lesser evil a society can tolerate and still consider itself virtuous or, for that matter, even democratic. When we are satisfied that the coercive measures we take are a ''genuine last resort'' and if we are able to ''justify our actions publicly to our fellow citizens'' and if our repressive actions (like holding suspects without trial or counsel) do ''actually enhance security,'' Ignatieff writes, then we have chosen the lesser evil. And presumably we can feel satisfied.

Given that a frightened public will tolerate inflicting just about any amount of repression in the name of security, Ignatieff's traffic signal seems to mean ''proceed but with caution.'' And his assurance that ''democracy itself'' will keep a lesser evil from becoming a ''greater evil'' should ease our collective conscience when we remember that ''either we fight evil with evil or we succumb.''

Pre-emptive war, we are told, ''can be a justified lesser evil only when the case for it is sustained by evidence that would convince free peoples.'' Some constraint. This is precisely what happened when the Bush administration convinced both Ignatieff and the American people that an American invasion of Iraq was justified and urgent. Since even Ignatieff now admits it ''does not appear to have had a pre-emptive justification at all,'' what moral value are we supposed to put on the fact that a majority of frightened Americans were persuaded to believe their president? Does that make the invasion a lesser evil because for a while we thought it was morally all right? Ethics should be made of sterner stuff.

Ignatieff further assures us that a state is justified in waging pre-emptive war ''if the threat turns out to be real.'' But what if it turns out not to be real? Is the war justified anyway as a means of finding out for sure -- like shooting a speeding driver because he might hit somebody? With similar logic we are advised that a justified pre-emptive war ''must not leave things worse than before the action was contemplated.'' All very well, but not much help. A president who knew this in advance would need magical powers of prediction.

While the theme of this book is evil in its various degrees and guises, Ignatieff is not much better than George W. Bush in actually describing it. When he tries to do so he sounds like the Supreme Court justice who said that although he could not define pornography, he knew it when he saw it. For Ignatieff, evil seems to boil down to what terrorists commit. Glaringly absent is any serious political analysis of why they do what they do.

Everyone agrees terrorism is evil -- at least when committed by the other side. But it did not pop up yesterday. As a method of warfare it goes back to the dawn of civilization. It is new to Americans because nothing is truly real until it happens to us. To be sure, acts of terrorism against us must be dealt with and, if possible, prevented. But first we have to agree on what it is and what inspires it. That means recognizing that terrorism is not an enemy in itself, as we thought of the Soviet Union during the cold war. Rather it is a method for achieving a goal. That goal is usually some kind of political change that is thwarted by other means. Terrorism is what the weak use to increase their bargaining power against the strong.

Terrorists are especially evil, Ignatieff tells us, because they use violence as a first resort and target civilians. That is indeed heinous, but they are hardly unique in doing so. Even democratic states can resort to terrorism in wartime. Let us recall our own nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the British destruction of Dresden, cities of little military significance targeted for vengeance and the terrorizing of civilians.

Terrorist groups can be merciless. But this does not mean they are irrational. Ignatieff seems to have trouble accepting this. On the one hand, he grudgingly admits that some terrorists might be persuaded to turn away from violence if their goals could be achieved by other means. But on the other hand, he insists terrorism is ''a form of politics that aims at the death of politics itself.'' In other words, terrorists are often motivated less by high politics than by irrational or emotional forces like ''ressentiment and envy, greed and blood lust.'' Indeed, he writes -- drawing heavily, far too heavily, on the literary creations of Conrad and Dostoyevsky -- terrorism can be a form of ''nihilism'' and ''alienation.''

So, along with much else, may it be. But this assertion does not get us far in understanding the essentially political causes of terrorism and finding an effective means of dealing with it. In fact, it gets in the way of such an understanding. Most terrorists today are nationalists, not nihilists. Even Islamic suicide bombers believe they are redressing terrible wrongs done to their people and their beliefs, and that this justifies their actions. This is not unlike the motivation of certain American terrorists whom we today admire, like John Brown. And if terrorists believe they will be honored in the afterlife for their self-sacrifice, they are hardly different from many soldiers of democratic states who have gone to war and courted death in the belief that a higher power was blessing, and would reward, their endeavor.

To describe, as Ignatieff does, terror-wielding groups like Al Qaeda and Hamas as ''less political than apocalyptic'' and essentially ''death cults'' may be comforting. But it is dangerously self-deceptive. It conveniently allows us to dismiss their obvious and usually explicit political goals as simply a mask for their irrationality. It encourages us to believe that those who oppose us for our actions are ''in love with death'' rather than being governed by beliefs as important to them as ours are to us. By doing so it indulges us in waging ''war'' on the manifestations of terrorism rather than dealing with its causes.

In concocting a formula for a little evil lite to combat the true evildoers, Michael Ignatieff has not provided, as his subtitle states, a code of ''political ethics in an age of terror'' but rather an elegantly packaged manual of national self-justification.

About the Author: Ronald Steel, the author of Temptations of a Superpower and other books about American political thought and foreign relations, teaches international relations at the University of Southern California.

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