Vive Le Canada

Ignatieff’s Nemesis
Date: Wednesday, November 08 2006

Legitimising Torture--with a little help from my friends

Contributor's Introduction: Liberal leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff has been out of the country for the last thirty years. He arrives back as the “celebrated Harvard professor,” supposedly new to politics. All of the other candidates in the race have been resident and their histories, political and otherwise, are an open book. Bob Rae, for example, as a former member of the NDP and less than successful Ontario premier has had to deal with these liabilities. He has done so candidly and with grace.

Ignatieff though is not new to politics, only new to running for elected office, as he has been at the center of a human rights controversy that is very political and he as an academic has been accused of politicizing his writing. His views on human rights have drawn the ire of many of his academic peers and critics.

When this writer started reading Ignatieff and about Ignatieff there was the possibility his critics were a few isolated souls. But the more one reads the circle of critics becomes ever expanding. One senior academic referred to him as, “a virus in the human rights movement.”

Now I find myself agreeing with Laurie Taylor, sociologist, State University of New York, when she says in a Toronto Star article, “But recent events look likely to precipitate a full scale divorce between Ignatieff and his former colleagues.”

It now seems fair to conclude that Ignatieff arrives back in Canada as a human rights pariah.

Our national media has not given this controversy any meaningful coverage. Yet this controversy cannot be dismissed as it tells us a great deal about the man, his political values and the type of prime minister he would be.

Liberals and Canadians should be making informed choices.

In January 2005 there was an article by Conor Gearty, professor of human rights law at the London school of Economics published in the British academic quarterly Index on Censorship. The article titled: Legitimising Torture-with a little help from my friends, addressed the issue of liberal intellectuals and human rights lawyers creating a climate in which torture could become politically acceptable. Gearty singled out Michael Ignatieff as “probably the most important figure to fall into this category of hand-wringing, apologetic apologists for human rights abuse.” He takes Ignatieff to task for views expressed in his book: The Lesser Evil. Political Ethics in an Age of Terror.

Ignatieff felt he had been horribly wronged by Gearty’s article, so much so that he resigned from the quarterly’s editorial and advisory boards, tried to block secondary sale of the article and petitioned the editor to support his position. The editor ruled that the article was fair comment and invited Ignatieff to write a rebuttal. To date Ignatieff has not replied to Gearty’s article and this probably speaks to the unimpeachable quality of Gearty’s arguments. He becomes Ignatieff’s nemesis.

It is noteworthy that in the past few weeks the Bush administration has passed legislation allowing torture as well as renouncing the right of habeas corpus. Gearty’s article also then becomes prophetic.

Part of “selling” torture to the uncouth masses by liberal intellectuals and human rights lawyers is to wrap it in an appropriate euphemism such as “coercive interrogation,” much like “collateral damage” which refers to dead civilians buried under the rubble of indiscriminate aerial bombardment.

Then there is the story of US Army specialist Alyssa Peterson who was a gifted linguist and interrogator serving in Iraq. She committed suicide after witnessing two sessions of “interrogation” in “the cage.” What Peterson saw in those two sessions that prompted her suicide will never be known as the records of those “interrogations” have been destroyed. (See soldier killed herself after objecting to interrogation techniques)

Following, is the text of Gearty’s article. It is a compelling document that demands deliberate consideration.

Legitimising Torture-with a little help from my friends

Prologue: Torture is wrong and ineffective. Everyone knows that. So how come it's making a comeback? As much in sorrow as in anger, human rights lawyer Conor Gearty fingers an unexpected set of protagonists - the intellectuals and lawyers who server as a "cerebral praetorian guard," protecting the masters of Guantánamo Bay from consciousness of their own savagery...

The article: The development of a liberal culture capable of accommodating torture is not as difficult as it ought to be. At the centre of any such normalisation process, driving forward the acceptability of such conduct in an entrenched democracy, there is invariably to be found a particular category of persons, the Rumsfeldians.

These individuals are distinguished by their determination to permit, indeed to encourage, the holding of suspected ‘terrorists’ or ‘unlawful combatants’ (or whoever it might be: ‘bogus asylum-seekers’, ‘drug-barons’, ‘anti-social elements’ etc) in conditions which make torture, inhuman and degrading treatment well-nigh situationally inevitable.

No ethic drives their policy, not even one of self or national interest, since torture is inefficient as well as (in post-post-modern terms) plain wrong. The brutality to which they commit themselves is that of the stupid playground bully, lashing out just because it is possible; or that of the self-serving police officer using violence to camouflage incompetence.

Rumsfeldians rarely come directly from the soldiering classes, though once established in power they find many such figures more than ready to follow them and to fulfil their goals. They are political rather than military leaders whose success lies in their lively engagement with the general public and in their ability, in frequent fiery re-iterations, to think the unthinkable out loud.

Through being able to do this without immediate disgrace, they push back the barriers of the unsayable, thereby opening the door to the hitherto undoable.

It originated at:

[Proofreader's note: this article was edited for spelling and typos on November 9, 2006]


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