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The evils of lesser evils: Ignatieff and the statist response to terrorism

The evils of lesser evils: Ignatieff and the statist response to terrorism

St. Thomas University

2007

A statist response to terrorism is ineffective. It regards terrorism as something that it is not, and fights it in a way that does not work in the long run. Michael Ignatieff’s theory of lesser evils requires a statist response to work. His ideas may be necessary in some cases, but using them as official policy can cause more harm then good. The encroachment on rights these responses bring with them can serve to fuel the fires of extremism.

A criminality response to terrorism fights it effectively because of its flexibility and regard for human rights and legality. It betters the international image of western countries fighting terrorism, allowing them to be beacons on a hill and helping to undercut support for extremists. As such, it is better then a statist and lesser evils response to terrorism.

Lesser Evils and the Statist Response

Ignatieff’s idea of lesser evils depends on a statist, as opposed to a criminality, response to terrorism. This means treating terrorism as an act of war, and responding to it forcefully. It sees Governments using their militaries against terrorists and countries that either passively or actively support them. It also defines a war on terror as something that can be won and treats it like a single problem that can be solved with a unified international response.


Ignatieff’s theory goes one step further then war. Lesser evils is a method to, “ balance civil liberties and national security in a war on terror,”(Ignatieff 1).He believes in government policy that holds prisoners for indefinite periods of time, uses coercive interrogation, targeted assassinations, and pre-emptive warfare. Ignatieff thinks that these methods will help to discover and stop terrorist plots before they come to fruition. He also believes those methods can be especially helpful in ticking time bomb situations where the only way to stop an attack is to encroach on the rights of attackers.

The reason Ignatieff feels such extreme methods are needed, and why he calls them lesser evils, is because he thinks another terrorist attack could lead to the American public demanding a national security state. He is afraid that, “American’s will not forgive a second … fatal mistake,”(Ignatieff 1). He says another attack, with something like a nuclear or dirty bomb, “would make 9/11 seem like a pale prelude,” (Ignatieff 1), that would, “mean the death of democracy,”(Ignatieff 1). He wants to use the lesser evils to stop terrorists from taking advantage of the American legal system and prevent the greater evil of an out of control state wielding unlimited power over the rights of its citizens. He claims that small rights abuses in certain situations and under the control of democratic institutions, are justifiable.

The Criminality Response

The criminality response treats terrorism as a crime, not an act of war. It says terrorism violates international law, human rights and/or domestic law. It attempts to use the full power of the legal system to prosecute terrorists, and only in the most extreme and drastic cases will the response allow for the violation of domestic or international law and human rights.

The criminality response defines terrorism as something that will always exist and must always be fought. Unlike a statist response, it attempts to weaken terrorism by dealing with its root causes and appealing to moderates. It is flexible and allows for different responses in different places, according to local situation and law enforcement capabilities.


Problems With the Statist Response and Lesser Evils

Ignatieff assumes that another large terrorist attack will lead to the United States becoming a national security state. He feels that people will be so frightened they will give up liberties to prevent terrorism. There is no way to know whether people will react as strongly as Ignatieff assumes, and it is risky to implement his ideas based on an assumption. He also assumes that lesser evils will be the best way to stop terrorist attacks. In fact they may not be very effective at all, and they look very bad internationally.

One of the principle problems with the statist response to terrorism is that, as Mark Drumbl puts it, “conceptualizing the use of force and the use of courts as mutually exclusive response mechanisms builds somewhat of a false dichotomy,” (335). He is suggesting that force and a criminality response are not incompatible, that when authorized by the justice system, force can be used to track down, capture, and if necessary, kill terrorists. As such, a statist response is not the only response to terrorism which allows governments to use force.

Another problem with the statist response is that it does not give enough weight to the thousands of different problems and situations that lead to terrorism. Terrorism is and was different in Indonesia, Iraq and Ireland. Extremists are present in every country, and are not just Islamic. The very fact that extremism has become such a problem in western European countries proves that a conventional, “war,” on terror is ineffective. It is difficult to fight an enemy at home in any conventional way.


There are benefits to holding terrorist suspects without a trial and using so called “coercive interrogation.” That interrogation, which comes dangerously close to torture, can lead to information that would otherwise have remained undiscovered. Holding suspects without trail makes it easier to arrest terrorists and keep them from planning new attacks. Targeted assassinations, like the execution of al Qaeda operative Hamza Rabia by the US last December, can devastate terrorist leadership and discourage would be terrorists. Pre emptive war can give a government the upper hand, allowing it to strike first and remove vital parts of an opposing military before it has the chance to mobilize.

All of those practices are included in Michael Ignatieff’s idea of lesser evils. Unfortunately, they make the western governments who use them appear hypocritical, except in a few extenuating circumstances, and frequently are not beneficial in the long run. Pre-emptive warfare makes the nation using it an aggressor, and can lead to wars that may not have otherwise started. All of these things mean giving fuel to terrorist rhetoric.


“To claim, as some people do, that coercive interrogation doesn’t work contradicts common sense, as well as the Bush administration’s unqualified insistence that the CIA’s “alternative procedures” have already thwarted terrorist attacks and saved lives,” (1), Jonathan Rauch claims in a National Journal article on coercive interrogation. Coercive interrogation very well may have value, especially in a ticking time bomb situation. There are times when something wrong must be done in order to prevent something worse. If a bomb is about to go off in an office building, and the bomber has been caught but will not say what building the bomb is in, the rights of the possible victims should come first. Rauch says, “surely the rights of potential terrorism victims count no less than the rights of detainees,”(Rauch, 1). Coercive interrogation in that case should be used. But as Rauch also says, “To use coercive interrogation as part of everyday intelligence‑gathering would certainly be unacceptable,” (Rauch., 1), because, “even the occasional and careful use of rough methods risks tarnishing America’s image and diminishing the country’s power to lead by example,”(Rauch, 1). As such, there should be no policy allowing for routine coercive interrogation, except for the allowance of it in ticking time bomb situations.

Targeted assassinations seem effective, but they frequently cause more harm then good and do little in the long run. Al Qaeda leadership was decimated by the Americans, but the New York Times reports that is has been all but re-established. A more in depth example is when Israel assassinated Salah Shehada with a 2,000 pound bomb that obliterated his apartment building. Unfortunately,

Shehada had his daughter with him … and the buildings

surrounding his own were occupied. When the massive bomb

demolished the target, it also damaged several of these other

buildings. Shehada was killed‑‑but so were at least 14 civilians,

including his daughter and eight other children (Byman, Tit for Tat).


There was an outcry. “Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians turned out to mourn the victims. World leaders condemned the attack …,” (Byman, Tit for Tat). Israel managed to kill a terrorist who had caused the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians, but the fuel they added to the fire of Palestinian extremism may have far outweighed the benefit of his death. “Terrorist groups … retaliate when their leaders are killed,” (Byman, A Bloody Balance Sheet). Byman quotes a senior Palestinian security official who said, “whoever sign[s] off on killing a leader among Hamas or any other leader on the Palestinian side should turn the page and should sign off on killing 16 Israelis,” (Byman, A Bloody Balance Sheet). Terrorist groups react like this in Palestine after Israel strikes. There is no reason to think they will not react similarly in other countries when other western nations use targeted assassinations. The fact that assassinated terrorist leaders can be replaced in a matter of years or months certainly makes the threat of these retribution killings seem too much to justify targeted assassinations. In exceptional cases, such as when it will prevent an attack, an assassination may be necessary. However, assassinations can not be an everyday practice, and must be carried out only when they will do more good then harm.

Like all of Ignatieff’s lesser evils, indefinite detention violates rights and makes the US look bad. It destroys a persons right to freedom, and without a real trial to prove the US is justified in doing so. Jennifer Van Bergen says, “without such protections [as judicial review and habeas corpus] justice does not work and human rights are jeopardized.”(450). In other words, innocent people can be jailed without any one to help them, and this does not benefit anyone in the long run. The excuse that terrorists must be held indefinitely to get information from them is hard to swallow. It is difficult to understand how something relevant and timely could be gained from a suspect after three years of detention that could not be gained after a couple of months. Perhaps it is justified to have a few people jailed, in the name of national security and without trial, for a short period of time. However the usefulness of that tactic seems to decline after years of detention without trial.

Ignatieff’s lesser evils can simply add fuel to the fire. They make the west look bad and give material to extremists looking to criticise them.. In the long run, they may end up helping to create more terrorists then they remove.

The Advantages of the Criminality Response


The criminality response uses the best parts of the statist and lesser evils responses against terrorism without doing as much damage to the image of the country practising it. The criminality response does not treat terrorism as a war that can be won, but as something that will never stop. As such it seeks to undercut terrorism legally and morally, and to do everything possible to reduce it. In this aspect it has a much more realistic view of a world plagued by terrorism.

As stated above, the criminality response seeks to prosecute terrorists under the law, not extra judicially or in military tribunals. Terrorists are seen as criminals, not enemy combatants. Treating them as criminals, because they have violated international law, looks much better internationally then holding terrorists without trial or prosecuting them under semi-legitimate military tribunals.

That being said, the criminality response also leaves room for force. The military can be used to detain criminals or eliminate threats. As Drumbl says, “The criminal law, after all, permits the use of force to track down, capture and neutralize suspected criminals who resist arrest. It also permits the use [of] force in self-defence,” (345-346). When absolutely necessary, in extraordinary cases, Ignatieff’s lesser evils can be used. They should not be used as a matter of policy, but only when properly authorized by the judiciary, executive or legislature. If a bomb is about to go off, the bomber can be tortured, if a terrorist leader can be assassinated with the proper authorization and without the risk of becoming a martyr or invoking international scorn, then the leader can be assassinated. The criminality response acknowledges that lesser evils are too evil to have implemented as policy, but that force can be used when needed.


Aside from actually punishing terrorists, the criminality response has the capacity to undercuts terrorists support. It attempts to appeal to moderates and deals with the root problems of terrorism in order to remove that support. This can be accomplished by doing many things. Most importantly, the criminality response allows the country practising it to appear as a beacon on a hill. The United States could stand to have its international image bolstered. By stopping things that violate its citizens rights, like illegal wiretaps, and curtailing its use of lesser evils, the US would undercut some terrorist rhetoric and help to slow down radicalization.

Dr. Sidney Jones, an expert on Islamic radicalism speaks out against lesser evils in Policy. She says, “it’s precisely ill-treatment and violations of liberties of these kinds that can lead to the further radicalisation of people that you want to draw away from the groups they belong to,” (Rolfe 50). By using the criminality response and stopping its use of lesser evils, the United States could become a much better example of freedom and democracy, and just maybe, give less reason for terrorists to criticise it.

The causes of terrorism are varied, from economic and social reasons to indoctrination by parents, and a sweeping approach to eradicating it is ineffective (Rolfe 51). This is one of the reasons why the criminality response is better then the statist and lesser evils responses. It can allow for different measures in different places according to the legal systems and law enforcement capabilities of the nations and regions involved.


Jones calls a military response to terrorism, “dangerous,”(Rolfe, 51), except when terrorism “blends into insurgency like you had with the IRA,”(Rolfe 51). Jones says improving education and building economies will help to slow radicalisation in certain places, although not in others. Radicalisation of immigrants and their children is a big problem in Europe. Better programs to bring about integration and stop racism are needed to help stop this radicalisation. The Middle East has a variety of problems in all of its countries. However, economic help, ending government corruption, better law enforcement, prosecution under the law with assistance from the military, and giving terrorists less reason to hate the United States and Western countries will help stop radicalisation while eliminating immediate terrorist threats. Jones says East Asian countries like Indonesia need a combination of improved law enforcement, education and economic programs to combat terrorism. The approach to curtailing terrorism must be flexible, and never calls for an all out war. The criminality response has the force and flexibility needed to work.

The statist response views terrorism as something that can be defeated militarily, a bad and too rigid idea. Some of Ignatieff’s lesser evils serve a purpose in certain situations, but when implemented as a matter of everyday policy, only serve to radicalise people susceptible to extremist doctrine. The criminality response realises terrorism cannot be stopped. As such, it works to slow terrorism down. It allows for the flexibility needed to address terrorism in every corner of the world, while still using military force when necessary. As such, a criminality response, which only uses lesser evils in extraordinary cases, is the most effective way to combat terrorism.


Works Cited

Byman, Daniel. (2006, March/April). Do Targeted Killings Work? [electronic version]. Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85 Issue 2, p95-100. Used Page 5

Drumbl, Mark. (2004, Spring). ‘Lesser Evils’ in the War on Terrorism [electronic version]. Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Vol. 36 Issue 2/3, p335‑348. Used page 3 and 7.

Ignatieff, Michael. (2004, May 2). Lesser Evils. New York Times, Section 6, Page 46. Used page 1-2.

Rauch, Jonathan. (2006, September 23). The Right Approach to Rough Treatment [electronic version]. National Journal, Vol. 38 Issue 41, p18-19. Used Page 4.

Rolfe, Dominic. (2006/2007 Summer). Jihad in the Near North. Policy, Vol. 22 Issue 4, p47-51. Used page 8.

Van Bergen, Jennifer, & Valentine, Douglas. (2006). The Dangerous World of Indefinite Detentions: Vietnam to Abu Ghraib. Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Vol. 37 Issue 2/3, p449-508.Used page 6.

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