Must we fight terrorism with terror, match assassination with assassination, and torture with torture? Must we sacrifice civil liberty to protect public safety?
In the age of terrorism, the temptations of ruthlessness can be overwhelming. But we are pulled in the other direction too by the anxiety that a violent response to violence makes us morally indistinguishable from our enemies. There is perhaps no greater political challenge today than trying to win the war against terror without losing our democratic souls. Michael Ignatieff confronts this challenge head-on, with the combination of hard-headed idealism, historical sensitivity, and political judgment that has made him one of the most influential voices in international affairs today.
Ignatieff argues that we must not shrink from the use of violence--that far from undermining liberal democracy, force can be necessary for its survival. But its use must be measured, not a program of torture and revenge. And we must not fool ourselves that whatever we do in the name of freedom and democracy is good. We may need to kill to fight the greater evil of terrorism, but we must never pretend that doing so is anything better than a lesser evil.
In making this case, Ignatieff traces the modern history of terrorism and counter-terrorism, from the nihilists of Czarist Russia and the militias of Weimar Germany to the IRA and the unprecedented menace of Al Qaeda, with its suicidal agents bent on mass destruction. He shows how the most potent response to terror has been force, decisive and direct, but--just as important--restrained. The public scrutiny and political ethics that motivate restraint also give democracy its strongest weapon: the moral power to endure when the furies of vengeance and hatred are spent.
The book is based on the Gifford Lectures delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 2003.
Ignatieff, a leading liberal thinker on human rights issues, offers an impeccably (if often redundantly) argued case for how to balance security and liberty in the face of the new kind of threat posed by today's terrorists. His basic principle is that neither security nor liberty trumps the other a middle-of-the-road position but the more security-minded will no doubt find the author leans more to the civil libertarian side as he insists that, while the president may have prerogatives in terms of, say, limiting civil liberties, these actions must always be subject to legislative and judicial review. In the course of his discussion, Ignatieff, director of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights, touches on key and troubling issues, such as how a democracy fighting nihilistic terrorists can avoid falling into the nihilistic trap itself, and why (according to Ignatieff) there is no moral equivalence between the violence perpetrated by a Palestinian suicide bomber and that of Israel's military retaliations. On the question of torture, Ignatieff argues, against Alan Dershowitz, that even in "ticking-bomb" cases torture must be abjured. Equally controversial but forcefully argued is his contention that a liberal democracy must respect the human rights of its enemies, however inhumane their own actions have been. The bottom line for Ignatieff is, in the end, commonsensical: a moral response to terrorism, while advancing security, must respect the equality and dignity of all and "make the fewest possible changes to our tried and tested standards of due process." This is an essential starting point for liberals and civil libertarians in grappling with the difficult moral and political challenges posed by the war on terror.