The Ethics of Antiterrorism; Unlikely Alliances in a New Age

Article excerpt


Liberal ethicist and historian Michael Ignatieff shocked admirers last year when he came out in favor of war in Iraq. Luckily for the disappointed, he offered one small gratification when, in a New York Times Magazine column written just as the war began, he smeared his new co-opinionists.

"Supporting the war [does not] make you a Cheney conservative or an apologist for American imperialism," he declared. The message was clear: You antiwar types have lost the argument. But rest assured, I still prefer your company over dinner.

Mr. Ignatieff, a professor of human rights policy at Harvard, will need to make similar gestures if readers fully digest "The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror." The book is an extended rumination on how constitutional democracies should think about terrorism.

But it is also an argument for controversial things like targeted assassinations of key terrorist leaders, effective interrogation measures - measures short of physical coercion or pharmacological inducement, but only barely - and even pre-emptive war against rogue regimes aspiring to obtain nuclear weapons. Liberal admirers will find much to object to in Mr. Ignatieff's antiterrorism counsel.

Mr. Ignatieff thinks constitutional democracies should strive for an ethics of prudence, not principle. "There are no trump cards, no table-clearing justifications or claims," he argues, not even rights, nor the necessity of terrorist emergencies. The rule of expediency is not what Mr. Ignatieff calls for - far from it - but he takes pains to dispel illusions that the Western democracies can keep their hands clean of war and intrigue when fighting terror. "Either we fight evil with evil or we succumb," he writes. So how to fight evil with evil, precisely?

Begin by remembering that a lesser evil is still an evil. Next, apply three tests to any antiterror policy: a dignity test, a conservative test and an effectiveness test.

Is the action cruel and unusual or otherwise degrading? If so, it fails to reflect our true nature as small "l" liberals and needs to be rethought. Is it conservative? That is, does it conserve our institutions and freedoms, or does it depart unreasonably from them? If so, it cannot stand, because it erodes the very things the terrorists have targeted in the first place.

Third, does it work? If it erodes longer-term intangibles like governmental legitimacy and political support for the constitutional order, it becomes unsustainable as national policy. …