Ignatieff On Evil

Yann Martel’s review of Michael Ignatieff’s The Lesser of Evils in his monthly letter to Stephen Harper:

The Lesser Evil is a study on liberal democracies and terrorism. How do a people who value freedom and dignity handle those who commit senseless violence against them? What is the right balance between the competing demands of rights and security? What can a democratic society allow itself to do and still call itself democratic? These are some of the questions that Mr. Ignatieff tries to answer. He looks at nations as diverse as Russia, the United Kingdom, the U.S., Germany, Italy, Spain, Sri Lanka, Chile, Argentina, Israel and Palestine, in their current state but also historically, to see how they have dealt with assaults by terrorists. He also makes literary references, to Dostoyevsky and Conrad, to Euripides and Homer. Throughout, the approach is open, fair and critical, the analysis is rigorous and insightful, the conclusions are wise. Last but not least, the style is engaging. Mr. Ignatieff has a fine pen. My favourite line in the book is this one, on page 121: “Liberal states cannot be protected by herbivores.”

Mr. Ignatieff is a passionate yet subtle defender of liberal democracies and he finds that generally the tools they already have at their disposal will do in times of terrorist threat. Indeed, he argues that overreaction to a threat can do more long-term harm to a liberal democracy than the threat itself. The U.S. Patriot Act and Canada’s Bill C-36 are two examples Mr. Ignatieff gives of well-meaning but redundant and misguided attempts to deal with terrorism. When the regular tools won’t do, he acknowledges that the choices faced by liberal democracies are difficult. He makes the case that when a society that values freedom and human dignity is confronted with a threat to its existence, it must move beyond rigid moral perfectionism or outright utilitarian necessity and—carefully, mindfully, vigilantly—follow a path of lesser evil, that is, allow itself to commit some infringements of the part in order to save the whole. It is a position that seeks to reconcile the realism necessary to fight terrorism with the idealism of our democratic values. To work one’s way through such treacherous ground, to get down to details and talk about torture and preemptive military action, to give just two examples, requires a mind that is tough, sharp and brave. I’m glad to say that Mr. Ignatieff has such a mind.  

I haven’t read this book and doubt that I’ll bother.  So, for the moment, I can only comment on what Martel has said about it.  This business of carefully examining how the ideals of democracy can be bent to meet real problems – funny, I thought democracy was made real at least in part by our unwillingness to sacrifice its ideals to “terror”.  Some say that it’s when the ideals are most difficult to defend is the time they’re most important.  And this – “Liberal states cannot be protected by herbivores”????  WTF.  Does that mean no vegetarians in Canada’s armed forces?

I’ve read some of Ignatieff’s earlier works.  Didn’t like them in terms of ‘point of view’.  Doesn’t sound as though I’d like this one either.  No more than I am fond of the man.  I suppose it’s good news that Ignatieff can wield a pen effectively.  But it also matters what he’s saying.

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