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Review of The Lesser Evil, Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, by Michael Ignatieff


Michael Ignatieff, Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, in an article entitled "The Burden" that appeared in The New York Times Magazine on January 5, 2003, concluded with the observation that "America has inherited a world scarred not just by the failures of empires past but also by the failure of nationalist movement to create and secure free states—and now, suddenly, by the desire of Islamists to build theocratic tyrannies on the ruins of failed nationalist dreams." As Americans witnessed from afar for at least the last decade, and then with horrified proximity on September 11, 2001, the architects of those theocratic tyrannies are religious zealots and their servants are terrorists.

Since September 11, nations throughout the world, especially western democracies (Ignatieff calls them "liberal democracies"), have had difficulty understanding the political, religious and psychological components of Islamic terrorism, let alone how best to meet its potentially fatal challenge. In his ambitious, extremely thoughtful, and ultimately optimistic new book, The Lesser Evil, Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, Mr. Ignatieff, notes that: "When democracies fight terrorism, they are defending the proposition that their political life should be free of violence. But defeating terror requires violence. It may also require coercion, deception, secrecy, and violation of rights." Thus, he asks: "How can democracies resort to those means without destroying the values for which they stand? How can they resort to the lesser evil, without succumbing to the greater?" (Emphasis added).

Two exceedingly grave problems—definition and application—are inherent in these questions. It is upon their satisfactory resolution—fraught with risk of error, and thus inadequate response to terrorism—that our survival depends.

Mr. Ignatieff holds that terrorism is the greater evil, justifying the lesser evil response, because the former unleashes "violence as a first resort, in order to make peaceful politics impossible, and, second, in targeting unarmed civilians and punishing them for their allegiance or their ethnicity. This is to condemn them to death not for what they do, but for who they are and what they believe. Finally, terrorism is an offense not only against the lives and liberties of its specific victims, but against politics itself, against the practice of deliberation, compromise, and the search for nonviolent and reasonable solutions. Terrorism is a form of politics that aims at the death of politics itself." (Emphasis added).

The author then turns to the task of applying his calculus to the nihilist Islamofascists running amok in today’s world of weapons of mass destruction. In that world, "[i]nexorably, terrorism, like war itself, is moving beyond the conventional to the apocalyptic." Referring to Al Qaeda, the author observes that "[l]iberal democracies are . . . faced with an enemy whose demands cannot be appeased, who cannot be deterred, and who does not have to win in order for us to lose. The police, military, and intelligence agencies may succeed in detecting, stopping, or preempting ninety-nine potential attacks. But if the enemy possesses chemical, radiological, bacteriological, or nuclear weapons, they need succeed only once."

How, then, are free peoples to survive?

While Mr. Ignatieff offers several reasonable and potentially useful solutions—among them fostering democracy abroad, preventing failing states from failing, locking down weapons of mass destruction, inspection of states’ lethal capabilities—ultimately, the safest, albeit problematic, solution is preemptive military action. Although the author is concerned with moral and practical problems in striking first, he accepts, with some misgivings, its necessity. In the end, he understands, as we all must, that in a world of weapons of mass destruction and greater and lesser evils, in his words: "[L]iberal states cannot be defended by herbivores."

There is much to commend The Lesser Evil to the general reader—paradigms of twentieth century terrorism; why democratic use of coercion is a lesser evil; justifications for, and limitations on, suspension of civil liberties; dangers in overreacting to terrorism; political aspects of counterterror strategy.

But the book’s greatest value will be to those who make anti-terrorism policy, not only in the United States but throughout Mr. Ignatieff’s "liberal democracies." One suspects that it is these policymakers whom the author is addressing because it is they who can most benefit from this book—especially from the author’s fifth chapter, "The Temptations of Nihilism." In introducing this chapter, the author draws upon a passage from Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel, The Secret Agent, which dramatizes the psychology of a terrorist:

          "They [normal people] cannot be otherwise. Their character is built on conventional morality. It leans on the social order. Mine stands free fromeverything artificial. They are bound by all sorts of conventions. Theydepend on life . . . surrounded by all sorts of restraints and considerations, a complex organized fact open to attack at every point; whereas I depend on death, which knows no restraint and cannot be attacked. My superiority is evident." (Emphasis added).

Grasping the nature of this psychologically aberrant nihilism and destroying today’s terrorist practitioners by preemptive military action—as a lesser evil to the greater evil of a wounded, or even destroyed, western civilization—is our overarching task. Michael Ignatieff deserves our thanks for showing us the way.