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The Lesser Evil:
Political Ethics in an Age of Terror
Michael Ignatieff

Finalist for the 2004 Lionel Gelber Prize

Paperback | 2005 | $31.95 | ISBN: 9780691123936
232 pp. | 6 x 9
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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.


"In The Lesser Evil, Michael Ignatieff addresses the ethical problems faced by liberal democracies. . . . [H]e soberly deals with permanent problems of American foreign policy, not only those specifically provoked by the Bush administration's war on terror: the problems of attempting to rule without demonstrated legitimacy, the prudential problem of choosing the lesser evil, the expedient choice of deliberative abuse or suspension of rights considered defining qualities of democracy, the limits of acceptable violence and coercion, and the problems of arbitrary detention, torture, assassinationand disregard of the rule of law--all the subject of policy choices made in Washington since September 2001."--William Pfaff, Los Angeles Times

"We need calm, reasoned advice on how to balance the interests of security and liberty. We have it now in a remarkable book. Michael Ignatieff brings history, philosophy, law, and democratic morality to bear on the problem. That may sound daunting, but Ignatieff is such a forceful writer that it is a fascinating book. . . . Reading him is a bit like having a conversation with an eminently reasonable but convinced and powerfully convincing man."--Anthony Lewis, New York Review of Books

"Michael Ignatieff assesses America's war on terror and tries to determine what security measures a society can tolerate and still consider itself virtuous."--New York Times Book Review

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Table of Contents:

Democracy and the Lesser Evil 1
The Ethics of Emergency 25
The Weakness of the Strong 54
The Strength of the Weak 82
The Temptations of Nihilism 112
Liberty and Armageddon 145

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