In marshalled order set by Lucifer, who left his station last
Normblog reviews Michael Ignatieff's book on the moral problems of fighting terrorism. He also examines Conor Gearty's objection to Ignatieff's thesis. Ignatieff's reasoning is very close to my own: that maintaining morality, such as banning torture, comes at a price -- a price we should be willing to pay, up to a point. Gearty differs with Ignatieff, arguing that if human rights are held less than absolute or if the concepts of right or wrong are admitted into the debate then we are down the slippery slope to torture in some form.
The moment the human rights discourse moves in this way into the realm of good and evil is the moment when it has fatally compromised its integrity. For once these grand terms are deployed in the discussion, all bets are off as far as equality of esteem is concerned. If we are good and they are bad, then of course equality of esteem as between all of us is ludicrous. Why esteem the evildoer in the same way as he or she who does good?
Only humanitarian standards can be absolute standards and Gearty warns us not to seek other gods at our peril. Norm Geras is not persuaded by Gearty's argument, nor am I. One paragraph of Gearty's in particular is worth noting.
International humanitarian and human rights law represents the apogee of this civilizing trend in global affairs, with rules of decent conduct that took their colour from the fact of our shared humanity rather than the superiority of our particular cause being agreed and promulgated. Now, thanks primarily to the Rumsfeldians but also to the willingness of important liberals like Ignatieff to embrace the language, we are back in a pre-rule phase where, in effect, despite the liberals’ best hopes, anything goes.
Actually anything goes anyway despite international humanitarian law in much of the wide world. As a practical matter, anyone in trouble in the Third World would be ill-advised to mention Amnesty International or the European Union when under police interrogation unless he wants to be beaten more savagely. A bribe, hiring a good local lawyer, or some other manuever will work better in 999 cases out of thousand. The number of people helped by international humanitarian institutions in comparison to the number of victims is miniscule. That, sad to say, is not because the international humanitarians aren't well meaning, but because backsliding into the "pre-rule phase" can't be prevented when one is unwilling to enforce the rules. It's doubtful whether one can enforce humanitarian law entirely through humanitarian means. And if it is impossible to coerce human monsters into behaving; if it is impermissible to fight for humanitarian rules in principle, then activists must do the next best thing and focus on raising standards in societies where appeals to shame and morality have some force, in places for example, like the United States, the UK and Australia. Humanitarian law works where law is obeyed, like the electric shaver that works where there is electricity. And that's why Gearty can scathingly use the word Rumsfeldian in a vocabulary that will forever be bereft of 'Saddamian', 'Castrovian' or 'Mugabian'.
But it is in parts of the world where few rules apply that justice is needed most. There other steps must be taken. In 1997, a notorious pedophile named Robert "Dolly" Dunn was tracked down by an Australian 60 Minutes team in Honduras, where he had fled after eluding law enforcement in several countries "wanted since 1995 on nearly 100 sexual assault and drug charges". Without any legal authority to arrest Dunn, the Australian 60 Minutes team made a backdoor deal with local US DEA agents, who knew their way around enough to get Dunn deported as an "undesirable person" on a flight routed through Miami where, after the necessary due process, Australian law enforcement took him back to face the music.
Yet maneuvers of this kind work only when we are willing to reinstate the notions of 'good and evil' that Gearty finds so distasteful. Without the concepts of good and evil there are ultimately no guidelines on the use of force; and a world of rules cannot exist unless the rules can, in the first place, be imposed by force. But we are through the revolving door again.
Any effective campaign to outlaw torture must first of all begin by telling the public that innocent lives will be lost and suffering endured so that we can safeguard our souls; that for this we are willing to pay a price. It cannot begin by falsely promising the public that we can have our cake and eat it too. What Ignatieff understands is that there is no escape from moral choice, even if we wanted it. In Eve Garrard's summary:
So his (Ignatieff's) view is that in responding to the threat of terrorism, we shouldn't go all out to increase public security at the cost of abandoning our support for human rights, but neither should we treat human rights as totally inviolable if doing so exposes us to a greatly increased threat to our security. He thinks we should engage in something like moral trade-offs, allowing some strengthening of security at the expense of respect for rights, but also insisting that we have to accept some insecurity - maybe even some lives lost - in order to preserve core aspects of our democratic rights.
Update and correction
Norm Geras writes to say that the Normblog post quoted above was actually written by Eve Garrard, though it appears on his site. My mistake and I apologize. I've corrected it in the text above.
There's a bug in Blogger just now (15:00 PST) which keeps people from posting comments. The word verification code is stuck on "smenita". Will write Blogger to report the fault.