Cover image for The lesser evil : political ethics in an age of terror
The lesser evil : political ethics in an age of terror
Ignatieff, Michael.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Princeton : Princeton University Press, [2004]

Physical Description:
xii, 212 pages ; 24 cm.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
JA79 .I36 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Must we fight terrorism with terror, match assassination with assassination, and torture with torture? Must we sacrifice civil liberty to protect public safety?

In the age of terrorism, the temptations of ruthlessness can be overwhelming. But we are pulled in the other direction too by the anxiety that a violent response to violence makes us morally indistinguishable from our enemies. There is perhaps no greater political challenge today than trying to win the war against terror without losing our democratic souls. Michael Ignatieff confronts this challenge head-on, with the combination of hard-headed idealism, historical sensitivity, and political judgment that has made him one of the most influential voices in international affairs today.

Ignatieff argues that we must not shrink from the use of violence--that far from undermining liberal democracy, force can be necessary for its survival. But its use must be measured, not a program of torture and revenge. And we must not fool ourselves that whatever we do in the name of freedom and democracy is good. 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.

In making this case, Ignatieff traces the modern history of terrorism and counter-terrorism, from the nihilists of Czarist Russia and the militias of Weimar Germany to the IRA and the unprecedented menace of Al Qaeda, with its suicidal agents bent on mass destruction. He shows how the most potent response to terror has been force, decisive and direct, but--just as important--restrained. The public scrutiny and political ethics that motivate restraint also give democracy its strongest weapon: the moral power to endure when the furies of vengeance and hatred are spent.

The book is based on the Gifford Lectures delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 2003.

Author Notes

Michael Ignatieff, born in Toronto in 1947. But at the age of 11, Ignatieff was sent to Toronto to attend Upper Canada College as a boarder in 1959. At UCC, Ignatieff was elected a school prefect as Head of Wedd's House, was the captain of the varsity soccer team, and served as editor-in-chief of the school's yearbook. As well, Ignatieff volunteered for the Liberal Party during the 1965 federal election by canvassing the York South riding. He resumed his work for the Liberal Party in 1968, as a national youth organizer and party delegate for the Pierre Elliott Trudeau party leadership campaign. He then went on to continue his education at the University of Toronto and Harvard and Cambridge universities. In 1976, Ignatieff completed his Ph.D in History at Harvard University. He was granted a Cambridge M.A. by incorporation in 1978 on taking up a fellowship at King's College there. Michael Ignatieff has written television programs for the BBC, novels, and works of nonfiction. He has also authored essays and reviews for several publications including The New York Times. From 1990-93, he wrote a weekly column on international affairs for The Observer.

His family memoir, The Russian Album, received Canada's Governor General Award in 1988. His second novel, Scar Tissue, was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1993. Other nonfiction works include A Just Measure of Pain, the Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution and the Warrior's Honor: Ethic War and the Modern Conscience.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

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 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In this wise and reflective book, Ignatieff (director, Carr Ctr. for Human Rights Policy, Harvard) draws upon his training as a historian and journalist to look behind the popular knee-jerk reactions to terrorism. Ignatieff is more a realist than an ideologue, and he presents an overview of how democracies have dealt with terrorist movements in the past and how they might best approach the terrorist threat today. Central to his book are several questions: Is there no moral limit to what a republic can do when its existence is threatened? Are human rights to be sacrificed for the safety of the population? Finally, when is extreme violence justified? Ignatieff argues that when violence by the state is justified, it should be tempered and limited; likewise, when emergency measures are enacted (such as the suspension of civil liberties), they need to be temporary. With examples from history (the Roman Empire, tsarist Russia, the IRA, and Britain), he explores the tension between democracy and survival and concludes that "liberal democracies consistently overreact to terrorist threats." This book is much more than a philosophical exercise. Ignatieff addresses real concerns, such as the acquisition of nuclear or chemical weapons by terrorist organizations. This should be required reading for all informed citizens as we face an uncertain future.-Thomas A. Karel, Franklin & Marshall Coll. Lib, Lancaster, PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

"Must we fight terrorism with terror, match assassination with assassination, and torture with torture? Must we sacrifice civil liberty to protect public safety?" Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, poses these questions. He concludes that force must be used to protect democracy, but only in calculated ways. If we do kill, we must remember that this is nothing better than "a lesser evil." In developing his argument, Ignatieff takes the middle road between "pure civil libertarianism" (no violation of civil rights is justified) and strict pragmatism (killers should be killed). Begun in the form of public lectures delivered at the University of Edinburgh (2003), the book contains six chapters: "Democracy and the Lesser Evil," "Ethics of Emergency," "Weakness of the Strong," "Strength of the Weak," "Temptations of Nihilism," and "Liberty and Armageddon." In the latter chapter, Ignatieff discusses terrorists' possible acquisition of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), predicting that terrorists--if they use WMD--will attack less frequently but with far more catastrophic effects. Such attacks might end the era of modern states begun in 1648 after the Thirty Years War. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. All levels. J. Granville Stanford University

Table of Contents

Prefacep. vii
Chapter 1 Democracy and the Lesser Evilp. 1
Chapter 2 The Ethics of Emergencyp. 25
Chapter 3 The Weakness of the Strongp. 54
Chapter 4 The Strength of the Weakp. 82
Chapter 5 The Temptations of Nihilismp. 112
Chapter 6 Liberty and Armageddonp. 145
Notesp. 171
Indexp. 205