The Lesser Evil | Michael Ignatieff

Summary of: The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (Gifford Lectures)
By: Michael Ignatieff


In an age of terror, how can liberal democracies preserve their values while defending against threats? In ‘The Lesser Evil,’ Michael Ignatieff tackles this question, exploring the balance between individual rights and collective security in the face of terrorism. The book delves into the dilemmas of protecting citizens without violating constitutional guarantees, the dual political spheres in liberal democracies, and the difficult choices made by governments when faced with moral ambiguity. Get ready to embark on an insightful journey as you navigate the complexities of political ethics and the challenging realities confronting democracies in a world under the shadow of terror.

Balancing Individual Rights and Collective Safety

In a liberal democracy facing a terrorist threat, the dilemma of protecting citizens while balancing constitutional guarantees of individual freedoms and rights arise. Liberal democracies operate on two political spheres, majority rule, and community powers that protect individual rights. However, a terrorist campaign endangers this delicate balance, leading to prioritizing national security over individual rights. Governments must take terrorist threats seriously, but weighing costs and benefits forces them to choose the lesser of two evils. An emergency is a temporary state, not a revocation of the rule of law. As ethical beings, we must justify difficult decisions between two morally questionable acts, particularly when governments present acts of violence as the means of reaching national goals. As such, the larger question revolves around what role human rights should play in deciding public policy during terrorist emergencies.

Emergencies and their impact on liberal democracies

The essence of a liberal democracy is to protect citizens by allowing due process, constitutional rights, and the separation of powers. Its morality is maintained by an open free press and legislature. However, during national, territorial, or selective emergencies, laws can be suspended, and civil liberties curtailed. This action is intended to restore order and ensure public safety but disrupts constitutional protections and the rule of law. The use of executive prerogatives can also override the law, leading to a conflict in the interests of the majority and individual rights. To maintain a balanced approach, governments can detain terrorist suspects for review and access to lawyers but should not hold them indefinitely. The U.S. Constitution has only one reference to emergencies, intended to minimal opportunities to curtail individual rights.

The Balancing Act: Liberal Democracies and Terrorism

Terrorism poses a unique challenge to liberal democracies and their simultaneous commitments to political realities, societal security, and constitutional law. Despite the threat of potential attacks, democracies avoid infringing on society’s moral standards and individual rights. However, in national emergencies, they allow for “constitutional dictatorships” to maintain order. The war on terrorism presents a unique challenge as there is no clear endpoint or definition of victory. Democratic societies must continually weigh the practical approach of dealing with potential attacks against the more theoretical constitutional approach that protects individual rights.

Overreacting to Terrorism

Many liberal democracies have overreacted to terrorist threats since the mid-18th century, characteristically equating them to an invading army. The U.S overreacted to the 1919 Red Scare, and some politicians had similar concerns during World War II. Governments need to be conservative about revoking civil liberties in the face of terrorist threats to avoid playing into the hands of terrorist groups. Terrorists often rely on attacking indiscriminately, and they hope that governments will react violently against agitators. This reaction to violence only furthers the terrorists’ goals. For Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, the goal is to destabilize governments and promote bad news about the enemy. However, liberal democracies lose ground if they restrict civil liberties too much, further empowering terrorists and leaving the country vulnerable to attack. Therefore, the best strategy is to avoid overreacting to such threats and remain free, holding onto the higher moral ground.

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