File_5_May_12_Ignatieff_The_Lesser_Evil_2003 - The Lesser...

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Unformatted text preview: The Lesser Evil 2003 Michael Ignatieff Chapter One: Democracy and the Lesser Evil On the appointed day the unarmed crowd of the Gothic youth was carefully collected in the square or forum; the streets and avenues were occupied by the Roman troops, and the roofs of the houses were covered with archers and slingers. At the same hour, in all the cities of the East, the signal was given of indiscriminate slaughter; and the provinces of Asia were delivered, by the cruel prudence of Julius, from a domestic enemy, who in a few months might have carried fire and sword from the Hellespont to the Euphrates. The urgent consideration of the public safety may undoubtedly authorize the violation of every positive law. How far that or any other consideration may operate to dissolve the natural obligations of humanity and justice is a doctrine of which I still desire to remain ignorant. — Edward Gibbon , The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), 2.36 I What lesser evils may a society commit when it believes it faces the greater evil of its own destruction? This is one of the oldest questions in politics and one of the hardest to answer. The old Roman adage—the safety of the people is the first law—set few limits to the claims of security over liberty. In the name of the people's safety, the Roman republic was prepared to sacrifice all other laws. For what laws would survive if Rome itself perished? The suspension of civil liberties, the detention of aliens, the secret assassination of enemies: all this might be allowed, as a last resort, if the life of the state were in danger. But if law must sometimes compromise with necessity, must ethics surrender too? Is there no moral limit to what a republic can do when its existence is threatened? As Edward Gibbon retold the story of how the Romans slaughtered defenseless aliens in their eastern cities in 395 C.E. as a preemptive warning to the barbarians massing at the gates of their empire, he declined to consider whether actions that political necessity might require could still remain anathema to moral principle. But the question must not only be asked. It must be answered. If the society attacked on September 11, 2001, had been a tyranny, these ancient questions might not be relevant. For a tyranny will allow itself anything. But the nation attacked on that bright morning was a liberal democracy, a constitutional order that sets limits to any government's use of force. Democratic constitutions do allow some suspension of rights in states of emergency. Thus rights are not always trumps. But neither is necessity. Even in times of real danger, political authorities have to prove the case that abridgments of rights are justified. Justifying them requires a government to submit them to the test of adversarial review by the legislature, the courts, and a free media. A government seeking to respond to an attack or an expected danger is required to present the case for extraordinary measures to a legislature, to argue for them with...
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This note was uploaded on 02/14/2012 for the course POLS 4909 taught by Professor Bazowski during the Winter '09 term at York University.

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File_5_May_12_Ignatieff_The_Lesser_Evil_2003 - The Lesser...

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