Sunday, October 22, 2006

Why Ignatieff Should Not Lead the Liberals

"But thinking about lesser evils is unavoidable. Sticking too firmly to the rule of law simply allows terrorists too much leeway to exploit our freedoms. Abandoning the rule of law altogether betrays our most valued institutions. To defeat evil, we may have to traffic in evils: indefinite detention of suspects, coercive interrogations, targeted assassinations, even pre-emptive war. These are evils because each strays from national and international law and because they kill people or deprive them of freedom without due process. They can be justified only because they prevent the greater evil. The question is not whether we should be trafficking in lesser evils but whether we can keep lesser evils under the control of free institutions. If we can't, any victories we gain in the war on terror will be Pyrrhic ones."
On all fronts, keeping a war on terror under democratic scrutiny is critical to its operational success. A lesser-evil approach permits preventive detention, where subject to judicial review; coercive interrogation, where subject to executive control; pre-emptive strikes and assassination, where these serve publicly defensible strategic goals. But everything has to be subject to critical review by a free people: free debate, public discussion, Congressional review, in camera if need be, judicial review as a last resort.

Those are the words and beliefs of Michael Ignatieff as expressed in the New York Times Magazine, 2004. Reading that makes my blood boil and conjures up a fury, most especially because Ignatieff wrote those words as if he was an American using references to 'our' system, 'our' government, even though he was never an American citizen - just a Canadian professor teaching at Harvard. And that, particularly, infuriates me when I see too many Canadians supporting this man as the next possible leader of the Liberal party.

The doctrines of preventive detention, coercive interrogation, pre-emptive strikes and targeted assassinations are not liberal or Liberal values. Yet, too many Ignatieff supporters looking perhaps for an intellectual revival in the model of Pierre Trudeau have made the grave mistake of comparing this man, this faux liberal, to a former Prime Minister who truly was a great reformer, a man who gave life to a party that needed renewal, a man with a mix of powerful charisma and a sense of justice who, even beyond party lines, was extremely well-respected.

Ignatieff is not the second-coming and the type of so-called liberalism he espouses will only serve to make today's Liberal party the lesser of two conservative evils - the Harper neo-Conservatives would be counter-balanced by a center right Liberal party led by Ignatieff that would, once again, leave the NDP as the only authentic liberal party left in Canada. But, perhaps that is where today's Liberal party members, of which I am not one, feel most comfortable: stuck in the middle and willing to give up civil rights and justice as a compromise to seizing power once again. Those Liberals had better become quite familiar with the Ignatieff doctrine on how to win the so-called war on terror if they are to understand how this man led them away from their core liberal values at a time in the future when he is at the helm. They can't say they weren't warned.

During Saturday's debate, Ignatieff supproters booed and shouted down Bob Rae and Stephane Dion when they alluded to Ignatieff's past writings. So much for the principle of free speech.

Referring to a May 2004 New York Times article, Rae called on Ignatieff to explain how he can reconcile his support for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms with his past writings.

"He said to combat evil you have to sometimes accept to do evil," Rae said to a loud chorus of boos and shouts of "NDP" from Ignatieff supporters. "Indefinite detention of suspects, coercive questioning, targeted assassinations and even preventative war. To me that has nothing to do with the Canadian Charter of Rights."

Ignatieff, however, denied he had ever supported torture or rendition, the practice of shipping prisoners to countries where they are likely to be tortured.

"Listen well to me my friend," he shot back. "My mother, whom you knew, was engaged to marry a man who was killed under torture in Buchenwald. So you can be very sure that as prime minister, as leader of the party, I am against torture. I am against all those measures. I am in favour of the absolute defence of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I am against the rendition of Canadian citizens to other countries where they are tortured."

His actual position on torture is not that clear, as evidenced by his support of coercive interrogations and what he wrote in this article 'If Torture Works' in Prospect magazine, April 2006 where Ignatieff actually contradicts himself about the issue of coercive interrogation:

It is often said—and I argued so myself—that neither coercive interrogation nor torture is necessary, since entirely lawful interrogation can secure just as effective results.

He then goes on to defend torture because, according to Ignatieff, it apparently works:

But we are grasping at straws if we think this is the entire truth. As Posner and others have tartly pointed out, if torture and coercion are both as useless as critics pretend, why are they used so much? While some abuse and outright torture can be attributed to individual sadism, poor supervision and so on, it must be the case that other acts of torture occur because interrogators believe, in good faith, that torture is the only way to extract information in a timely fashion. It must also be the case that if experienced interrogators come to this conclusion, they do so on the basis of experience. The argument that torture and coercion do not work is contradicted by the dire frequency with which both practices occur. I submit that we would not be "waterboarding" Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—immersing him in water until he experiences the torment of nearly drowning—if our intelligence operatives did not believe it was necessary to crack open the al Qaeda network that he commanded. Indeed, Mark Bowden points to a Time report in March 2003 that Sheikh Mohammed had "given US interrogators the names and descriptions of about a dozen key al Qaeda operatives believed to be plotting terrorist attacks." We must at least entertain the possibility that the operatives working on Sheikh Mohammed in our name are engaging not in gratuitous sadism but in the genuine belief that this form of torture—and it does qualify as such—makes all the difference.

If they are right, then those who support an absolute ban on torture had better be honest enough to admit that moral prohibition comes at a price. It is possible, at least in theory, that subjecting interrogators to rules that outlaw torture and coercive interrogation, backed up by punishment if they go too far, will create an interrogation regime that allows some interrogation subjects to resist divulging information and prevents our intelligence services from timely access to information that may save lives.

These are the words of a man who believes torture works and whose only defence against it is this:

We cannot torture, in other words, because of who we are. This is the best I can do...

Frankly, if that's the best he can do, he doesn't deserve to lead the Liberal party and all of his boasting about the fact that he believes in human rights is based on very shaky ground indeed.

There is a danger that intellectuals face: the fact that they can intellectualize practically anything based on logic (at times subtley faulty yet still believable to an extent). What can be missing from such a mental experiment however is the emotional and spiritual depth of the human experience that produces a distance between the discussion of subjects like torture and the realities of the results of torture and so-called "coercive interrogation" methods themselves on the actual people who have endured them. It is of no benefit to bow to a thinker who is unable to make the connection to his own humanity.

Ignatieff uses his intellectualism to try to convince people that he really does believe in a ban on torture, while lamenting the loss of possible valuable information that he asserts can be gained from it. That is his stance. And he chooses to believe that it works in the face of massive evidence to the contrary while parroting Bushco statements that the torture of Kahlid Sheikh Mohammed actually produced useful results - a claim that has never been verified. One would think an intellectual, who prides himself in working for human rights, would at the very least question such a statement. But he can't because he really does believe torture can be useful. That, as far as I'm concerned, is a major flaw that cannot be overlooked, waved away or shouted down and booed by those who support Ignatieff's bid for the leadership. Nor should it be.

He is responsible for what he has written and what he believes and this man who wants to lead our country in the future must be answerable to all of us, much to the chagrin of those supporters of his at the debate on Saturday who would rather stifle debate than let it thrive in the open - where it rightly belongs.

We cannot allow our country to devolve into the political situation we now see in the United States: a far-right party (the Republicans) opposed by a lesser right party (the Democrats). Canada needs a balance between true liberals and true conservatives who are then able to meet somewhere in the middle in which they can compromise on decisions that work for all of us because that is the kind of democratic model that ensures that majority and minority rights are protected. That is a real reflection of our national character and we must be vigilant if we are to maintain what we cherish and value.

And that is why electing someone like Michael Ignatieff, who endorses pre-emptive war, whose character is lacking on the subject of torture, who believes in a military solution for Israeli/Palestinian relations, who openly sanctions targeted assassinations and who would rather live with the 'lesser of two evils' than rise above such a weak surrender to human rights to grab onto a mantle of the greater good which can be achieved by peaceful and humanitarian means - that is why his election as Liberal party leader would be a major step backwards for this country that we love so much. Why would any liberal or Liberal give such a man the power to run our country based on those beliefs?

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