Bush and the Lesser Evil

The Year of Living Dangerously: A Liberal Supporter of the War Looks Back

an article by Michael Ignatieff
The New York Times Magazine, March 14, 2004
John Ashcroft
John Ashcroft; drawing by David Levine


Suppression of civil liberty in the name of national security is an old story in the United States. It has happened repeatedly in times of war or fear since the early days of the republic. In 1798, just seven years after the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution, the Sedition Act made it a crime to criticize the president; the supposed reason was the danger of French Jacobin terror infiltrating America. The Civil War, World Wars I and II, and assorted episodes of national fear were all made occasions for punishing speech and depriving people of due process of law.

We are in another bad time for civil liberties now. Under the mantle of his War on Terror, President Bush has imprisoned American citizens without trial, detained thousands of aliens in this country, and persuaded Congress to let government intrude more deeply into our private lives. In a significant respect, the danger to liberty is more serious than in past episodes. We regretted previous repressions when the war or stress ended; editors convicted under the Sedition Act were pardoned, for example, and Japanese-Americans confined in desert camps during World War II were given modest compensation years later. But it is hard to envisage an end to the current war. There are terrorist groups around the world, and they are not likely to send a joint delegation to surrender. So repressive measures may go on indefinitely unless they are stopped by the courts or by political second thoughts.

In this situation 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.

Ignatieff has published many books on unusually diverse subjects: history, fiction, a superb biography of Isaiah Berlin. But his main theme nowadays is human rights. He is a professor and director of the Carr Center on Human Rights Policy at Harvard. A Canadian who has lived and taught in Britain as well as the United States, he is able to bring to bear a comparative perspective on how rights are protected elsewhere. Reading him is a bit like having a conversation with an eminently reasonable but convinced and powerfully convincing man. Some of us who opposed the war in Iraq were perplexed when he took a position in favor of it. A year later he had the courage, unlike the policymakers of the Bush administration, to admit to doubts. His thinking about the subject—his open-minded weighing of interests—is something like his approach to terrorism and civil liberties.

The Lesser Evil is not a direct criticism of what the Bush administration has done to civil liberties since September 11, 2001, although it has implications for the…

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