Most of the criticisms regarding this issue arise from an editorial he wrote in the NY Times in 2004 outlining the theme of his book The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror. In it, Ignatieff argues that we must not shrink from the use of violence in combating terrorism – that far from undermining liberal democracy, the measured use of force can be essential for its survival. This however most definitely does not include a systemic program of torture. Furthermore, Ignatieff argued that whatever we do in the name of freedom and democracy is good, but framed it rather cautiously this way, “We may need to kill to fight the greater evil of terrorism, but we must never pretend that doing so is anything better than a lesser evil.”I'm not so naive that I believe that liberal democracies have never tortured, or that they never will. But if this is all Ignatieff is saying (and I haven't read "The Lesser Evil" yet) then he's really just wasting our time. Liberalism has, since Locke, acknowledged that the government will occasionally need to do nasty things to preserve the state.
And I'm fine with that - being a bit of a Hobbesian, and someone who watched Somalia implode when I was younger, I recognize that the lack of a state can be worse than the alternative.
However, Ignatieff's defenders are protesting too much when they say that Ignatieff's position on torture has been clear opposition. The facts are actually quite simple - there is no reason that torture even needs to be considered in the context of terrorism. Western, liberal democracies faced existential threats before without condoning torture. (Of course, this is not to say that torture didn't happen, only that it was not being justified by leading intellectuals.)
As Gwynne Dyer has written, the fact that we're now worrying about terrorists who, on their best day, killed 3,000 people when we used to worry about total global nuclear annihilation should be cause for rejoicing. Instead, we're now undoing any number of moral, legal, and intellectual safeguards against abuse by the state. And Ignatieff has played a role in that, make no mistake. His opposition hasn't been nearly as clear-cut as he would have us believe:
It is often said—and I argued so myself—that neither coercive interrogation nor torture is necessary, since entirely lawful interrogation can secure just as effective results. There must be some truth to this. Israeli interrogators have given interviews assuring the Israeli public that physical duress is unnecessary. But we are grasping at straws if we think this is the entire truth. As Posner and others have tartly pointed out, if torture and coercion are both as useless as critics pretend, why are they used so much? While some abuse and outright torture can be attributed to individual sadism, poor supervision and so on, it must be the case that other acts of torture occur because interrogators believe, in good faith, that torture is the only way to extract information in a timely fashion.Demosthenes is exactly right - what we have here is Ignatieff the astrologer: "People have been doing it for a long time. They believe in it, or else they wouldn't do it, and it doesn't matter that others (including former practitioners) claim that it's useless."
More seriously, does Ignatieff seriously believe that human sadism is only capable of explaining some examples of torture? For someone who's written so extensively on the Balkans, you'd think his conception of human sadism would be a bit broader than that.
There are too many problems with torture to identify "one" and say it's the worst. I feel dirty even having to argue against it on practical or moral grounds. But what Ignatieff is ignoring is the human ability to define people as outside the moral community. The same mentality that allowed Nazi technicians to massacre Jews as a day job and go home to their devoted wives and children at night is exactly the mentality that allows, and indeed encourages, torture.
The United States is - as we speak - torturing people in Gitmo, in Iraq, and Afghanistan. Not to mention the unfortunates like Maher Arar who are tortured by proxy. This is being done against "terrorists" (mostly innocent, it turns out) when it was not done systematically against Communists or Fascists because we have defined "terrorism" as a barbaric act, and the terrorists themselves are therefore not deserving of the same protections that we extend to other criminals or even enemy soldiers.
This isn't philosophy, of course - this is the stated policy of the US government. Terrorists are not criminals or soldiers, they are something else that is not protected by the Geneva conventions or the various domestic laws that supposedly bind the US government.
The point is that the US has, philosophically and legally, defined terrorists as subhuman, or at least non-human in the sense that they are not entitled to the same human rights that we all have.
(We'll ignore for a moment that the people being tortured are, almost to a man and woman, brown-skinned people. Too many issues for one post.)
This is what makes Ignatieff's half-hearted attempts to oppose torture (sometimes, maybe, kinda) so offensive. For a man who has written and spoken so passionately on human rights, he doesn't understand that the victims are literally being dehumanized, all in the name of engaging in some sadistic revenge fantasy.
We've got plenty of time to argue about this before the convention, so I'm thinking of busting my mad academic skillz once school is done and delving in to Ignatieff's writings a bit more. I'm hoping that either A) I can convince Liberals not to support him, or B) that my reading will convince me that Ignatieff is in fact being misconstrued and he's really just passionately concerned about the survival of liberal democracies.
I genuinely am waiting to be convinced, but as my writing to date indicates, thus far I'm not impressed with him.