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Vol. 6, No. 4, 2007
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Even those who march left—a little left of right, left—a little left of right in an effort to accommodate reality must inevitably stumble and fall executing so awkward a mental gait. A case in point is Canadian-born intellectual Michael Ignatieff, who in his latest book, The Lesser Evil, elaborates the general thesis that the right response to mass casualty terrorism, even if some of our civil liberties must be temporarily suspended, is to resist the national security state that necessarily restricts our liberty and increases distrust among citizens. Undeterred by the facts on the ground, he urges instead that we should strive to “strengthen open government” and to reinvigorate “the institutions of freedom”—a proposal that in ordinary circumstances should enlist our unreserved support but in the current situation seems a trifle lame considering the self-admitted prospect of a collapsed economy and “zones of devastation sealed off for years.” If a liberal democracy must respect the rights of the enemy, as he contends, the fact that this enemy refuses as a matter of policy to do likewise, has rejected all international conventions governing the conduct of war, and is planning to inflict upon his target nothing short of the unthinkable, must qualify the argument if we are to survive its consequences. In articulating the classic liberal position that due process and basic dignity “are independent of conduct and irrevocable under any circumstance,” Ignatieff comes precariously close to a form of purist Christianity of a Quaker or Amish stamp, a veritable godsend to the terrorists in our midst. It is precisely the degree of restraint that is in question here, as well as the moral fear of coming to resemble the enemy in the process of defeating him—but a ticking bomb is not defused by cerebral distinctions that address the future when there may not be one.

Ignatieff is especially slippery because in many ways he does seem to have a grip on the complex issues and hard realities of the day. He promotes the United States, acknowledges the necessity of the war on terror, and recognizes, as he writes in The Lesser Evil, that “defeating terrorism requires violence…and may require coercion, deception, secrecy and violation of rights,” and that “liberal societies cannot be defended by herbivores. We need carnivores to save us.” At the same time, his libertarian bias has the effect of ensuring that his Praetorian carnivores will come to behave like harmless, contemplative herbivores. For the democratic war on terror of which he appears to approve is made subject to a series of tests that can only cripple the resolve to fight it effectively, tests such as “the dignity test—do [coercive measures] violate individual rights”—that allow us to ensure that such procedures “preclude cruel and unusual punishment?”; and the “conservative test,” that is, do coercive measures deprive detained individuals of judicial review? These are followed by a chain of further trials, including the test of “open adversarial review,” the consultation of other nations and respect for international obligations, and the “last resort test,” the latter defined as the question concerning whether “less coercive measures have been tried and failed.” Another such constraint is the proposed dismissal “of the carnivores who disgrace the society they are charged to protect.” But carnivores tend to behave in certain ways and this is precisely why we require their services in the first place. The only alternative, if we intend to be consistent, is to geld them at the start, which would defeat their obvious purpose. Ignatieff’s conclusion is that, “If all this adds up to a series of constraints that tie the hands of our government, so be it.” But of course such criteria in their stringency, number, and, not least, in the time required to apply them, would have exactly that effect and the war on terror will have been critically handicapped and possibly even lost.

The two central legal principles Ignatieff likes to tout—the twin towers, we might say, of “invariance” (laws are immutable) and “equality” (laws apply to all)—were damaged (though, fortunately, not irreparably) not by American legislators or a neoconservative presidency, but by the terrorists themselves. Commitments to minority rights should certainly, as he claims, “be maintained as far as possible, in times of danger.” But how far is as far as possible? And how justified is it to favour the rights of a minority from whose ranks the enemy is drawn and in whose bosom he is too often sheltered? Let us not forget that this is the very enemy responsible for compelling the majority of the citizenry, or its elected representatives, to invoke the suspension of some of the rights Ignatieff is strenuously defending. Civil libertarians will condemn such revocation as a victory for the enemy and this is doubtlessly the case up to a degree. Nevertheless, the victory that might ensue in the absence of such measures is one that may well be total and surely far more non-revocable than the principles of invariance and equality sanctified by the liberal Left. This is not Milton’s war in Heaven in which the Law need never be suspended or attuned to circumstance. This is what H. J. Simson, in his important study, British Rule, and Rebellion, has termed “sub-war,” which “creates a situation that cannot be met by the laws and punishments of ordinary times.” To be sure, Ignatieff does appear at one point to soften his stance, vacillating toward an acceptance of commonsensical flexibility. But his hastily cooked-up middle way between invariance and practical effectiveness—that “laws do derive some of their powers from being difficult to change, and yet if they are completely unresponsive to emergency situations, they may be ineffective”—is really a Baby Bear’s Porridge position, an ambiguous and mainly verbal compromise, neither hot nor cold, in a world that does not grant us the luxury of tepid equivocations and that is always ready to strike in the chink between the self and its contradiction. And, as we have noted, Ignatieff has set up so many hedges and conditions against the agencies of revocation and operational efficiency as to render them pretty well edentulous (perhaps a reference to Eden when none were needed).

Let us stay with Ignatieff a moment longer since he provides a good illustration of how even an ideological dove gradually evolving hawklet’s talons—he originally approved of the American-led invasion of Iraq—manages to gain so little purchase on the current situation. Ignatieff writes, “If apocalyptic nihilism feeds on political despair, it is in the rational self-interest of wealthy states to invest in assistance to help authoritarian societies in the Arab world—societies that have failed their people—to move toward democracy, even if the denouement is likely to bring Islamic parties to power.” We should see how tenuous if not preposterous such “liberal” pronunciamentos really are. First, it is by no means certain that what we are now encountering is “apocalyptic nihilism”; apocalyptic movements may well spring from eschatological religious principles and appear nihilistic only to those who observe from the outside, which is more than likely what is happening now. The war that has been unleashed today is an all-out theological jihad, rooted in the Islamic scriptures, against both the secular state and the founding religions of the Western world. In the words of Jean-François Revel in his recent book Anti-Americanism, “Islamic terrorism in general is the offspring of a religious idée fixe and has nothing to do with theories about poverty. . .On the contrary, Islamists utterly reject as incompatible with the Qur’an all measures that might contribute to improvement: democracy, secularism, intellectual freedom and critical thought, equality for women, pluralism and openness to other cultures.” Further, how wealthy states, by which Ignatieff means the Western democracies—as if the Islamic tyrannies were not already obscenely wealthy—are to invest in the Arab world, whether materially or through digital technology, so as to actually reach the disadvantaged beneath the impermeable layers of autocratic state control is a predicament that no one has yet been able to resolve, except in the realm of the political fairy tale. The only way of effecting so revolutionary a goal that has any possibility of success is “regime change,” although the outcome of such interventions is always problematic and runs counter to majoritarian liberal thinking.

Finally, if such assistance were to bring Islamist parties to power, the chaos that would ensue on the international scene would be catastrophic. Democracy is not a panacea that cures all ills merely by being introduced, but is contingent upon a host of keystone conditions—on entrenched safeguards, the separation of Church and State, the schooling of the electorate, a sound economic basis, a robust and solvent middle class, a functioning and responsive bureaucracy, the political will for the ballot box, and, in particular, guarantees of electoral repeatability. But the concept of the rotation of power is alien to Islam, except by the time-vetted methods of assassination, revolt, and consanguinity. If the democratic option serves only to put a terrorist regime in power, on the principle of “one man, one vote, one time,” then democracy becomes the means whereby violence is institutionalized, as, for example, was the case in Palestine when Hamas emerged victorious—the Hamas Charter promises to “spread the spirit of Jihad among the Umma, clash with the enemies and join the ranks of the Jihad fighters”—or in Lebanon when Hizbullah assumed a lynchpin role in the establishment of a new national parliament. Worse, merely imagine a violence-prone Algeria, a militarily powerful Turkey, a nuclear Pakistan operating as full-fledged, radical Islamic regimes on the world stage—very real possibilities. Indeed it is Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal and its fundamentalist parties threatening to assassinate the president and assume control of the government, that fuels the gravest nightmare scenario. And Iran, as we know, is well on its way to nuclear enrichment and is constantly ratcheting up its anti-Western rhetoric. According to a report filed by the Adnkronos News agency, Hojatolislam Gholam Hasani, who represents the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, delivered a sermon at a Tehran mosque in which he stressed that, “Freedom, democracy and stupidities of this type…are not in sync with the principles of Islam. Islam always spoke with a sword in hand, and I don’t see why now we should change attitude and talk with other civilizations.”

The Western belief that the accession to power of Islamist groups and parties through democratic means will lead to moderation, responsibility, and an end to terrorism by forcing them to “get real” in their dealings with the empirical world is completely without merit and contradicted by the facts—one look at Arafat’s Palestine and Khomeini’s Iran should have dispelled all illusions about so improbable an alternative. Add to this dismal scenario the multitude of terrorist organizations and states who might soon deploy their own nuclear and biological arsenal (or already have them) and it becomes nothing less than a type of lunacy to maintain that the mere sowing of the democratic seed among the Islamic peoples will produce a flourishing harvest. Islam will see to the burning of the fields. The educated innocence of Ignatieff-style academics can only do us inestimable harm and must be diligently countered by a straight-shooting, no-nonsense, aquiline realism if we are to survive our fateful appointment with the most pitiless of enemies.

Ignatieff proceeds to exacerbate the mischief in his keynote address to the Banff Television Festival in June 2004, in which he defines terrorism in Clausewitzian terms as “politics by other means.” These are “disgraceful, illegitimate means,” he concedes, but nevertheless “means that serve the needs and aspirations of people.” Which brings up an obvious question: what needs and aspirations of which people were being served by the slaughter of September 11, 2001? The sandstone dwellers of Yemen? The gun-toting tribesmen of North and South Waziristan? The fanatic misogynists of the Wahabbi peninsula? The metastasizing cells of cateran guerrillas? The Palestinians who danced in the streets and handed out candy in the days after 9/11 to celebrate the death of defenceless innocents? Somehow I doubt it. And since he mentions as well the Palestinian-trained Red Brigades and the Baader Meinhoff cadre of the 70s and 80s, may we not also inquire what particular stratum of the population their adoption of terrorist methods might imaginably have benefitted?

Rather than engage in such unanchored speculation, Ignatieff might have been better advised to consult Amir Taheri’s Holy Terror: Inside the World of Islamic Terrorism or the research findings of Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside Al Qaeda. Gunaratna has shown that in the decade 1993-2003, 86% of suspected and committed terrorists were Muslims and the rest were mainly converts to Islam. It is also disturbing that Ignatieff buys into the contemporary cliché that the Islamist terrorists murder and maim from political and economic desperation, forgetting that the terrorists who brought down the Twin Towers hailed mainly from privileged backgrounds and that Osama bin Laden never lacked for money. Ignatieff is one of the more respectable and intelligent members of the Solonic comity; he is undone not by irrational anger or a prior political allegiance, but by the boy-scout ingenuousness of the well-tempered citizen. Nevertheless, that he should reveal himself as so lazy a thinker and so credulous an observer speaks volumes for the competence of the constituency of which he forms a part.

David Solway on the Jewish enemies of Israel in the National Post.

The Big Lie: Terror, Antisemitism, and Identity
Publisher: Lester, Mason & Begg
ISBN: 978-0-9781765-0-1

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