Book Review: The Lesser Evil by Michael Ignatieff

Essay by iamthewalrusCollege, UndergraduateA+, October 2009

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4/30/2009Michael Ignatieff's The Lesser Evil investigates the fundamental disparity between the principles of human rights and democracy, and the practical necessities of upholding them in the civilized world. The central issue Ignatieff grapples with is the place of human rights in the face of national emergency. He asserts his purpose in the prologue: "I try to chart a middle course between a pure civil libertarian position which maintains that no violations of rights can ever be justified and a purely pragmatic position that judges antiterrorist measures solely by their effectiveness." (Ignatieff viii). Clearly, this book is a response to the apparent threat terrorism holds over the United States, and the belief that this threat is likely to only increase with time. Consequently, Ignatieff aims to offer a comprehensive argument detailing the ethics, justifications, successes, failures, and recommendations for instances in which the ideals of democracy must be partially surrendered in order to save any resemblance of them.

Overall, Ignatieff asserts that, occasionally, circumstances arrive in which a nation is forced to choose between two undesirable options. He "maintains that necessity may require us to take actions in defense of democracy which will stray from democracy's own foundational commitments to dignity." (Ignatieff 8). The manner by which he builds this argument is notably broad in scope and thorough in nature. Ignatieff draws upon examples form history, literature, philosophy, and law to attack the issue from an extraordinarily abstract perspective. Nevertheless, the targetis never lost; namely, the fact that his argument pertains to present-day events-the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq-is at no point misplaced during his expansive dialogue. The purpose of the book, therefore, is "to help citizens and leaders make the hazardous choices that a successful struggle against terrorism requires." (Ignatieff vii). So, the...