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The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (Gifford Lectures (Princeton University Press)) First Edition Edition

4.1 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0691117515
ISBN-10: 0691117519
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.
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From Booklist

Unlike some tunnel-visioned amnesiacs, Ignatieff understands that democracies around the world were fighting terrorism long before 9/11. In this exceptionally sophisticated commentary, he provides much-needed global and historical context for America's war against al-Qaeda, illuminating the promise and peril of a range of possible strategies for combating terrorist threats. Readers examine, for instance, the reasons that German and Italian police succeeded in their campaign against the Baader Meinhof gang in the 1970s while their counterparts in Spain failed during the same years to eradicate the cells of Basque terrorists. The sheer diversity of his case studies enables Ignatieff to discredit any simple-minded approach to terrorism. Although recognizing the need for democratic regimes to resort to violence and deception to prevent malign forces from destroying their citizens' lives and liberties, Ignatieff's impressive scholarship also underscores his warning that unless democracies subject all of their extraordinary tactics to legislative oversight and judicial scrutiny, they may subvert the very political traditions they set out to defend. The turbulence of recent history guarantees keen interest for this sobering inquiry. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Series: Gifford Lectures (Princeton University Press)
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; First Edition edition (May 2, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691117519
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691117515
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.5 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #557,753 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Wayne C. Lusvardi on July 5, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Michael Ignatieff, a liberal writer, columnist, broadcaster, and Harvard University professor has written a thoughtful, readable, and non-partisan book on how democracies should deal with the domestic civil rights challenges of terrorism. This book elevates the discussion beyond political hate rhetoric, propaganda, spin, and jingoism.
What Ignatieff is concerned about is how democracies avoid political repression at home while fighting brutal wars abroad. Ignatieff's political ethics of the lesser evil charts a midway course between a pure civil libertarianism and cynical pragmatism (antiterrorist measures should be judged by only their effectiveness).
In a nutshell Ignatieff's book discusses how emergencies such as 9/11 can be used to abandon civil rights, how he believes that democracies usually overreact to terror, how he believes terrorism is a response to injustice and blocked political means of redress, how terrorist and anti-terrorists may start with high ideals but end up in a vicious cycle of violence for its own sake, and the challenges to liberal democracies posed when weapons of mass destruction pass into the hands of small terrorist cells rather than states. Ignatieff bases his lesser evil approach to political ethics on novels and Greek plays and the political philosophy of the 15th Century Italian diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli (The Prince, The Discourses).
Ignatieff's implication that the Iraq war is an overreaction to terrorism is inconsistent with his own ethical criteria that force should only be used as a last resort. He contends that 9/11 did not endanger the social order of the U.S. and likens the U.S. response to 9/11 to that of the Red Scare of the 1950's. Here Ignatieff's reasoned book deteriorates into mush.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Michael Ignatieff has been a writer I have read quite a bit in my Master's degree in Genocide Studies. He is a leading Human Rights advocate, professor and writer. However, I have enjoyed reading his works because he is very practical. He often examines the psychological nature of "warriors" or people engaged in warfare. He realizes that liberal democracies must be able to fight those who seek to terrorize them. But, how do you do this and remain true to everything a liberal, democratic society stands for? The answer is fighting back with necessary but "Lesser Evils."
This is no easy task, for a Human Rights professor to admit that some atrocities must be committed in the defense of a nation, but what are they? He is hardly an apologist for sadistic and unethical treatment of suspects though. This point must be clear before you read this book; he is no Dershowitz and argues against him here.
Ignatieff often tells how democracies may be tempted to fight their enemies with an "eye for an eye" mentality, but sinking down to their level is a bigger threat that some terrorists are aiming for as a goal.
He uses history as a guide and notes that democracies tend to overreact to terrorist threats. He even notes that civil liberties may be suspended TEMPORARIRLY in times of emergency, (which he notes would outrage many civil libertarians) but this would be an example of a lesser evil. However, he writes as a person admitting some measures may need to happen, but it will leave a bad taste in all of our mouths, and the longer it goes on the more bitter. Its "lack of permanence" is necessary.
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An incredible book, a must read for any politics student or someone interested in civil liberties. It discusses real-world historical examples of security issues pitted against civil liberties, and the various solutions tried. It makes a persuasive case of the ethics regarding civil liberties even in an age where the population is under grave threat. The author does a fantastic job of discussing tools at a government's disposal (e.g. emergency powers, sunset provisions in laws, judicial oversight and public accountability), and describes the full range of threats. This was one of the most important books I had read for my major, and made me completely re-evaluate my political beliefs.
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Format: Hardcover
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks threatened Americans' safety, and strained the U.S.'s judicial and social interpretations about how to respond to a national emergency. Civil rights and constitutional experts from both conservative and liberal camps had to respond to the country's new "Homeland Security" practices dealing with surveillance and detention. Their reactions involved everything from the right of habeas corpus to the U.S. Constitution and the rights of captured combatants. Michael Ignatieff covers this heady area in essays adapted from a lecture series. The topic is crucial, but alas the book is dense reading. However, the author's interpretations of civil and legal issues, constitutional law, the rule of law, and the ethics and morality of fighting terrorists will deeply intrigue those in related fields. getAbstract considers this an important book for lawyers and academics, if not casual readers. Ignatieff shows that balancing the rights of those criminals known as terrorists against the safety of citizens is an issue society will debate hotly for years to come.
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