on May 27, 2004
Michael Ignatieff has been a writer I have read quite a bit in my Master's degree in Genocide Studies. He is a leading Human Rights advocate, professor and writer. However, I have enjoyed reading his works because he is very practical. He often examines the psychological nature of "warriors" or people engaged in warfare. He realizes that liberal democracies must be able to fight those who seek to terrorize them. But, how do you do this and remain true to everything a liberal, democratic society stands for? The answer is fighting back with necessary but "Lesser Evils."
This is no easy task, for a Human Rights professor to admit that some atrocities must be committed in the defense of a nation, but what are they? He is hardly an apologist for sadistic and unethical treatment of suspects though. This point must be clear before you read this book; he is no Dershowitz and argues against him here.
Ignatieff often tells how democracies may be tempted to fight their enemies with an "eye for an eye" mentality, but sinking down to their level is a bigger threat that some terrorists are aiming for as a goal.
He uses history as a guide and notes that democracies tend to overreact to terrorist threats. He even notes that civil liberties may be suspended TEMPORARIRLY in times of emergency, (which he notes would outrage many civil libertarians) but this would be an example of a lesser evil. However, he writes as a person admitting some measures may need to happen, but it will leave a bad taste in all of our mouths, and the longer it goes on the more bitter. Its "lack of permanence" is necessary.
Yes, he talks of torture (before it came out in the media in Iraq) "They (national leaders) need results from their security services, and in the pressure of the moment, they may not care overmuch about how these results are obtained. A culture of silent complicity may develop between civilian political leaders and their security chiefs, in which both sides know that extralegal means are being used but each has an interest in keeping quiet about it." -p. 135 Hello Mr. Rumsfeld.
He goes on to say why torture is especially bad for a democracy, "a moral hazard."
Finally, of great importance in this book is he looks at six different types of terrorism, explains them and then talks about how they can be confronted, though sometimes his answers fall short (you hope he gives a workable solution to all these problems, though you realize it isn't possible).
He finishes with a chapter on the possibility of terrorists possessing a biological, chemical or nuclear weapon. History, which served as his guide in earlier chapters, would no longer apply to this scenario. He suggests that a society that is truthful to its citizens and will engage in dialogue with other countries, international organizations, while also placing responsibility on itself and other stable nations not to let unstable ones divulge into chaos is essential.
Rarely has terrorism been able to topple a whole nation alone, and when it has happened, it was because of additional political circumstances that it occurred (Tsarist Russia and WW I). But if democracies are self-questioning and honest on their ethical reactions to terrorism, than the more civil liberties will be preserved and tangible victories will result. Ignatieff has no doubt that liberal democracies will succeed in the war on terror, by defeating our enemies and also preserving the civil liberties of our minorities.
on December 29, 2007
I ordered this book from Amazon.ca during the Liberal leadership run of 2007 (or was it still 2006?). I was curious about Michael Ignatieff. Through his participation in CBC radio's prestigious Massey lectures series I had become aware of him and his reputation; so I had been listening to his interviews, and reading articles by and about him (he has no shortage of critics). I was slowly being won over, in spite of my skepticism. He seemed highly intelligent, but -more importantly- intellectually ambitious and honest. He belonged solidly to the Left, but displayed none of the ideological dogmatism that seems to afflict so many who call themselves Left or Right.
This book was what ultimately sold me on Mr. Ignatieff. He is rigorous in his examination of the issues. He refused to cut corners, or fall into the lazy trap of idealism. He has high ideals, certainly; but he never lets them stand between him and an honest examination of the subject matter. Torture, terrorism, and the politics of fear; The US, the middle powers, the Arab states, Israel: nothing and no one is left untouched. Everyone is implicated in the situation we find ourselves in. He certainly didn't write it to make any friends.
It isn't a comfortable read. If I agree with Ignatieff, it is only with great reluctance that I do so.
on June 1, 2004
In this short book, Ignatieff presents a valuable and well-researched historical context for the current climate of terrorism.
His book helped me to understand the motivation of terrorist organizations. He suggests a middle way for a liberal democracy's response to a terrorist threat, suggesting that a temporary loss of the freedoms and rights that define liberal democracy may be necessary to ensure security. He suggests careful safeguards to ensure that these rights and freedoms are restored when the threat ends.
on January 2, 2005
This is an excellent, short book that expertly tackles the problem of individual-rights based democracy versus majority-rights based democracy, and argues towards the existence of a middle ground that can assure a semblence of security without destroying the rule of law that a liberal democracy rests on.
The recognization that some suspensions are necessary, but that they MUST be regarded as 'lesser evils' is a compelling argument from this respected human rights scholar. The book convincingly lays forth its arguments, and critically dissects both the position of the civil libertarian and that of the security state.
It has certainly changed my outlook on the 'war on terror', and the parable of Ulysees is the most graphic image I retained from the book and is useful. Hopefully, leaders in the United States and other liberal democracies will read this book and take some of the lessons (arguments?) to heart.