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Does Michael Ignatieff condone torture?


 

If Michael Ignatieff is a ninny, he is a strange kind of tyrannical ninny. At least insofar as his critics persist in repeating two points about him: (1) He endorsed the war in Iraq, and (2) He condones torture.

The first is indisputable, and Mr. Ignatieff has made great and public effort to explain himself in that regard.

The second has always seem a little less straightforward, but if it is to persist as an issue, we might as well try to make sense of it. If only so I can figure out what to think.

As was argued in a profile of him two-and-a-half years ago, “the problem for Ignatieff is he openly debates himself in public.” And so it becomes fairly easy to find a quote of his that appears to justify, or at least defend, the use of torture.

I’m not yet all the way through The Lesser Evil, Ignatieff’s primary text on the subject, but the first result of a basic Google search (“Michael Ignatieff” + “torture”) is this essay, written in 2006 for Prospect magazine. A Conservative blogger recently used an excerpt from this piece to argue that Ignatieff does, or did, support “coercive interrogation” (a heinous phrase that is often used to describe acts that are nothing less than torture).

That essay does, though, include the following paragraph.

So I end up supporting an absolute and unconditional ban on both torture and those forms of coercive interrogation that involve stress and duress, and I believe that enforcement of such a ban should be up to the military justice system plus the federal courts. I also believe that the training of interrogators can be improved by executive order and that the training must rigorously exclude stress and duress methods. 

That, to me, seems fairly unequivocal. Of course, Ignatieff—not being one of those tough guys—follows that with another thousand words considering the potential failings of his conclusion. And it is from that discussion that the aforementioned blogger—as interested partisans have and will—quoted Ignatieff. Specifically, he grabbed this passage.

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. 

That, on its own, seems rather Cheneyesque. But then Ignatieff uses several of the preceding sentences to refute the argument that torture is “necessary.” And he spends two of the subsequent paragraphs explaining his aforementioned “absolute and unconditional ban.”

For what it’s worth, Ignatieff’s concluding paragraph is as follows.

We cannot torture, in other words, because of who we are. This is the best I can do, but those of us who believe this had better admit that many of our fellow citizens are bound to disagree. It is in the nature of democracy itself that fellow citizens will define their identity in ways that privilege security over liberty and thus reluctantly endorse torture in their name. If we are against torture, we are committed to arguing with our fellow citizens, not treating those who defend torture as moral monsters. Those of us who oppose torture should also be honest enough to admit that we may have to pay a price for our own convictions. Ex ante, of course, I cannot tell how high this price might be. Ex post—following another terrorist attack that might have been prevented through the exercise of coercive interrogation—the price of my scruple might simply seem too high. This is a risk I am prepared to take, but frankly, a majority of fellow citizens is unlikely to concur. 

So does Michael Ignatieff condone torture? Does he condone waterboarding or stress positions or the use of dogs or the so-called “frequent flyer” program or any other of Dick Cheney’s little fantasies? From my reading—while remaining open to being convinced otherwise—I’d say no. 

If so, the endurance of the accusation that he does actually becomes an even trickier issue to decipher. Is it a failing of his writing? Is it a failing of his political sensibility? Is it a failing of his critics? Or a failing of our politics to identify the “truth?”


 

Does Michael Ignatieff condone torture?

  1. “Is it a failing of his writing? Is it a failing of his political sensibility? Is it a failing of his critics? Or a failing of our politics to identify the “truth?””

    It seems to me a failure to distinguish between subjects worthy of thoughtful discussion and subjects that should be unequivocally condemned, each and every time, automatically.

    I don’t think there are any subjects that fall into that category all the time everywhere. But at certain historical junctures it is necessary to shout, not to reason.

    Take, for instance, antisemitism. No decent person tolerates it, either in print or in conversation, and those who are vulnerable to it should make an effort to expunge it from their thoughts. Nevertheless, at certain historical junctures it is not only tolerable but vitally important to discuss antisemitism, its historical trajectory, its manifestations, etc. But 1933 would not be one of those times; neither would 1946 or any time in between, because the whole world was threatened by it.

    Torture, like antisemitism, is in itself intolerable. But there may be times for discussing its history, weighing the pros and cons, and finally rejecting it absolutely. The Bush presidency was not one of those times, because it was actually using torture; and even if Ignatieff did not know about Bagram and Gitmo and Abu Graib, he should have guessed that Cheney’s proto-fascism would be eager to use torture. Perhaps in 20 years it will be worth having a rational, balanced, adult conversation about torture, but for the moment, with millions of Westerners now actively in favour of it, that’s a luxury we simply can’t afford.

    • Interesting. Didn’t expect that argument.

      So Ignatieff was right to condemn torture, but wrong to do contemplate that condemnation publicly?

      Dunno if I agree Jack. Do we really want to say that there’s a time and place for public debate on sensitive issues? Isn’t that precisely what the Bush administration argued in going forward with so many of its greater sins?

      • I guess I wouldn’t make it into a hard-and-fast rule; I don’t mean we should all be in lock-step. But when my mind goes back to 2002-4 and I remember what life was like in the USA, when I literally felt anxious discussing politics with my closest friends on a left-wing campus in the Bay Area, I equally distrust the hard-and-fast rule that nuanced debate on all subjects is always a good idea.

        “Do we really want to say that there’s a time and place for public debate on sensitive issues? Isn’t that precisely what the Bush administration argued in going forward with so many of its greater sins?”

        It was what they argued, but they were depoyed that line so as to further their own arbitrary authority. That was their principal sin; the absolutism was only a means to an ends. When one side is pumping out the absolutism, it seems like folly to me to match their rubber bullets with flowers, their absolutism with reasoned argument. Likewise, we may say that political violence is always bad and we should politick peacefully, and that holds good generally; but if one faction in the state resorts to political violence then it would be irresponsible not to match them. When one faction does violence to basic morality by favouring torture, IMO a line has been crossed and the moment calls for rhetorical violence — at least in public.

        • I think I’m for reasoned argument, absolutely. Though I’m not sure your way of doing things wouldn’t be more effective.

          • Well, the good guys won in the end, so it’s a bit moot; and they won neither by reasoned argument nor by anti-authoritarian rhetoric but by good luck: namely the unforeseeable fact that the Bush administration was utterly incompetent.

            I mean, I would never have believed in 2003, when the propaganda engine was red-lining it and the Patriot Act was being zealously invoked by local sheriffs, that Bush & Co. would subsequently manage to lose the Iraq war, bankrupt the state, fail to deliver on their right-wing legislative agenda, and wind up with a 25% approval rating. One sees now that there was a correlation between Republicanism and incompetence — L. Paul Bremer being the archetype — but at the time Ignatieff was writing his book there was no guarantee at all that they might not be as efficient as Franco.

            So, thank God we don’t now have to face a fork in the road between Reason and victory, assuming we ever did.

    • Sadly jack it’s all happened before. in the heady days of the cold war the west looked the other way, particularly in S. America when it was deemed necessary in stemming the commie hordes. How on earth we have the chutzpha to lecture others on human rights is beond me!

    • Perhaps in 20 years it will be worth having a rational, balanced, adult conversation about torture, but for the moment, with millions of Westerners now actively in favour of it, that’s a luxury we simply can’t afford.

      What about shows like 24 that may have popularized torture as you suggest. Should they be censored? Should actors like Kiefer Sutherland who star in these shows be likewise condemned?

      • I think there’s a big difference between censorship and condemnation. And, yes, Kiefer Sutherland should certainly be condemned. The ticking time bomb argument, which drives what pro-torture sentiment there is in the American public, owes 50% of its popularity to that show. People are morally responsible not only for their actions and ideas but for the consequences of their actions and ideas, at least if they ought to know better.

        • …Although personally I hate torture , I don’t see any reason to exclude arguments from the debate.

        • Interesting. You know, a number of people also suggest that 24’s black President David Palmer to some extent set the groundwork for the election of Barack Obama.

          That being the case, to be consistent, shouldn’t Kiefer Sutherland also be commended for starring in the show?

          • I suppose, but only if you think that having a black president is as important as not reverting to medievalism.

    • Jack, maybe I’m not following you correctly. Are you suggesting that we shouldn’t have adult discussions about torture while torture is actually taking place in the world? Because having rational discussions about torture, while millions of people support it, is a luxury we can’t afford? We should just shout, not reason?

      Personally, I abhor torture in all its forms. But I don’t really see reaction to torture as a binary proposition. Some will shout, others will reason. Reasoning will not cancel out the effects of shouting.

      Kudos to Iggy for having the intellectual courage to attempt reasoning rather than just shouting, when shouting was so much easier and safer.

      Also, kudos to Iggy for having the intellectual honesty to admit that there are at least some hypothetical scenarios where torture might actually be justified (e.g. the “ticking time bomb” TV cliché.) It’s amazing that he got into so much trouble for this simple, honest admission. He even took care to stress that this scenario is one that almost never actually happens, and should therefore never be allowed to excuse torture (as is so often the case).

      I don’t think there is any time where reason is not called for. Although personally I

      • …Although personally I should learn to proofread before I hit “enter” (see the response to Dot’s response for the proper conclusion to my post.)

      • “Kudos to Iggy for having the intellectual courage to attempt reasoning rather than just shouting, when shouting was so much easier and safer.”

        I entirely agree. There is a kind of kamikaze heroism to it, writing a book that you know will be misinterpreted and misquoted. But I think he damaged the cause of small-l liberalism, even while he was willing to damage himself: I admire the latter but regret the former.

        “I don’t really see reaction to torture as a binary proposition. Some will shout, others will reason. Reasoning will not cancel out the effects of shouting.”

        I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. The question is whether Ignatieff, as a small-l liberal celebrity, should himself have been reasoning or shouting in that particular moment. In spite of what I seem to have been saying above, I am in favour of reasonable argument; but sometimes, as you say, someone also has to shout. I guess I just think that Ignatieff, as one of the standard-bearers of international liberalism, should have been fighting in the front ranks, not planning the pursuit.

        • Jack, thanks for concisely identifying the specific area of our disagreement.

          “The question is whether Ignatieff, as a small-l liberal celebrity, should himself have been reasoning or shouting in that particular moment.”

          Ignatieff was a small-l liberal celebrity with a reputation for reasoning, rather than shouting. I don’t see any reason to chide Ignatieff for being true to himself, his thought processes, and his methodical style.

          • Fair point, and in retrospect his focus on reasoning seems like the right approach; I was just sorely disappointed at the time that he did not become the Anti-Hitchens. But I could say the same thing about most public intellectuals, except for a few lone guns in the NYRB like Mark Danner. And since I didn’t do anything myself, by way or rhetoric or by way or reasoning, I certainly shouldn’t cast the first stone. IIRC I was reading a lot of Latin poetry at the time, not polishing my sword.

          • JM
            I’ve always loved this from May Sarton[ i think? and probably am paraphrasing too]
            Sometimes you have to think like a hero,
            in order to behave like a merely decent
            human being.

          • I would love to see an Anti-Hitchens too! It’s too bad that some on the left (and the right, to some extent) have used Iggy’s essay as a stick to bash him over the head. If the most controversial thing they can dredge up against Iggy is a reasoned, nuanced, and cautious essay about torture, then I think Iggy is in pretty good shape.

          • kc — ah, thanks, that’s a comforting quotation, and I’m glad to learn the source! I remember it — well, I now remember it, thanks to google — from The Russia House, where it’s that line which Barley utters when he’s hanging around with the Russian writers (& ballistics scientist) at the dacha, thus setting in motion the whole plot.

            CR — Yeah, seriously, I think Iggy is going to keep picking up steam. And in the debates he’s bound to do very well. I’ve actually come round to Iggy completely (well, with a few caveats re: 2003) in the last month. He could do extremely well, I think.

          • It always strikes me as doubly ironic that most for his most vociferous critics it must be torture to read him, and perhaps to read anything at all.

          • The London Times and The Guardian have this year both listed Michael Ignatieff as one of the top 3 leading apologists for US imperialism. So I’m not sure how valid it still is to call Ignatieff a small “L” liberal, unless that is what it means to be a small L liberal these days.

            I think it is more a self-styled marketing label on his part, and the wishful thinking of true small L liberals that such an intelligent man would share their beliefs.

            The same liberal media that unthinkingly ate up Bush and Blair’s claims Iraq had WMD eat up Ignatieff’s marketing.

          • I’ve actually come round to Iggy completely (well, with a few caveats re: 2003) in the last month.

            Jack, ‘fess up. The Maclean’s interview was your turning point, wasn’t it. :)

          • Dude, I was so impresesd that I gushed in the first comment about it.

            The world recedes, it disappears;
            Heav’n opens on my eyes; my ears
            Are thrilled with his remark:
            Lend, lend your wings! I mount! I fly!
            O Grave! where is thy Victory?
            O Blog! where is thy snark?

    • J@ck, we need to consider this in context: Igantieff’s discussion of torture is only of concern to most of use because he wants to be PM of Canada.

      Do Canadians want a PM whose recent well considered formally written position on torture fails to clearly condemn or accept it?

      Do Canadians want a PM whose position is to obfuscate on torture — in the manner of Bush era US Whitehouse politicians?

      Regarding the wider issue of whether university professors or regular members of the public should be allowed to discuss, argue, believe, think or say whatever about torture hypothetically: I’m in favor of free speech for loony holocaust deniers, and what Ignatieff wrote is clearly far less objectionable and destructive than that.

      As a regular citizen, and as a university prof teaching human rights, there was nothing wrong, and a lot correct, with what Ignatieff wrote.

      However, writings like that are not what I look for in applicants to be police officers or prime ministers.

      • I guess I disagree both ways. Ignatieff wasn’t a “university professor,” he was a public intellectual who had been made head of a Harvard-affiliated institution. Nor is The Lesser Evil an academic book. Neither was he a private citizen, in the sense that you and I are. He was an opinion-maker and, at the time, a “liberal hawk” — if not quite in the daft, alcohol-crazed Hitchens mode. And I don’t object to his discussing torture but to the fact that the book is not a framed as a polemic against Dick Cheney.

        I don’t compare Bush to Hitler, but the classic example of a public intellectual failing to step up in favour of civilisation is Martin Heidegger. He viewed Nazism as a phenomenon to be understood as a historical-philosophical phenomenon. As it turns out, Heidegger was wrong in viewing fascism as inevitable, but that was not his especial sin. He conspicuously failed to take a stand and, in short, to take his duties as a public intellectual seriously. An academic, even of the existential philosopher type, is not absolved from the call of citizenship.

        But, to disagree with you the other way, I think you are too hard on Ignatieff. The post above features this line:

        So I end up supporting an absolute and unconditional ban on both torture and those forms of coercive interrogation that involve stress and duress

        That seems to me to be unequivocal as a position. On what grounds do you think he would have a different policy as PM?

        • JM
          Would i be correct in stating that much of Ignatieff’s difficulties and difficiencies as you have very well outlined, originate in his adopting an above it all pose, which you can never be.

          • I think that’s it in a nutshell, kc. If you take away the element of physical distance, here we are discussing torture with Michael Ignatieff in the living room while some poor wretch — terrorist, taxi driver, or petty thief — is in the kitchen being tortured. How can we not rush to his aid? We wouldn’t hold seminars on violence against women in the park at night while a woman is being raped behind the next tree; we’d act. But physical distance is no excuse, least of all in this day and age.

          • Let’s hope the unreal world of politics teaches him something about himself. It’s certainly no sin to be bright and well intentioned, but without action and the horse sense to know what to do, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

          • We wouldn’t hold seminars on violence against women in the park at night while a woman is being raped behind the next tree

            That’s some shocking imagery. I wouldn’t say it’s distasteful, but it sure grabs the reader by the throat.

          • Sorry, CR, yeah, kind of extreme. I was just trying to think of an instance where we’d all spontaneously agree the time for talk had passed, without even having to say it.

        • @Jack, How does an existential philosopher take a stand? I have to write a paper on Heidegger or more specifically hermeneutics, and as I’ve argued on one of the khadr posts I have come to a sense of justice, and an approach to morality from an evolutionary standpoint but I just wonder if you could point me in the direction of a continental philosopher, who dealt with legal theory. It’s my sense that a legal system is an axiomatic system, and I wonder how continentals deal with it.

          • That’s an interesting question, edeast, and I don’t really know. I’m also two days late in replying.

            Seems to me Sartre is the key guy here, in terms of existentialism as a philosophie engagée.

            According to these guys,

            Sartre’s pioneering combination of Existentialism and Marxism yielded a political philosophy uniquely sensitive to the tension between individual freedom and the forces of history. As a Marxist he believed that societies were best understood as arenas of struggle between powerful and powerless groups. But as an Existentialist he held individuals personally responsible for vast and apparently authorless social ills. The chief existential virtue — authenticity — would require a person to lucidly examine his or her social situation and accept personal culpability for the choices made in this situation. Unlike competing versions of Marxism, Sartre’s Existentialist-Marxism was based on a striking theory of individual agency and moral responsibility.

            So perhaps the isolation of the existentialist is, in this view, the consequence of his sense of personal responsibility in an irresponsible world. In other words, whereas Heidegger’s sort of existentialist would submit to the world’s irrationality, Sartre’s tragically defies it?

            I don’t know much about existentialism, but I’d suggest that Nietzsche is the precursor to both these approaches. On the one hand he claimed he was “the last apolitical German”; on the other hand, his whole persona was engaged, if not with politics, then with the grand politics of morality. Perhaps he felt that moral questions were the only true political questions?

          • Thanks. I think I’m going to shy away from morality for now, I can come back to morality in a subsequent paper. I remember studying existential ethics for one class, in intro philosophy, both sartre and nietzshean, but I remember that they didn’t appeal to me so much as Dewey’s pragmatism. What I’m thinking of doing is comparing process philosophy with hermeneutics somehow.

          • Way out of my league, dude, but good luck!

      • We accept PMs whose writing trashes Canada and who has been called into question on all sorts of issues that most Canadians consider questionable – SH. What’s so egregious about an ex academic whose main fault is not knowing when to shut up!

  2. Possibly, as an academic for many years, Ignatieff still tends to think like one – the process of enquiry and criticism is as important as the achievement of specific goals or conclusions. His way of problem-solving is likely to consider all of the available information before coming to his final conclusion. He would likely try to develop arguments that support his position, as well as ones that don’t. That process tends to make it appear that he supports something because he hasn’t yet been able to develop a conclusion that satisfies both sides of the issue.

  3. Yes, kudos for having the conviction, skill and resolve to openly dissect one’s own opinion in a literate manner for the public to parse. Perhaps when he wrote that, the thought of being a politician wasn’t one of his likely avenues.
    Amazing that, considering the free pass so many in the media (and those on the right who use Ignatieff’s balanced argument to bash him, while whole-heartedly endorsing what they party attempt to reveal him for) have given Harper on subjects like Iraq and the environment. Instead of intellectual heft, all he has brought to our political system is a game of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ with his gambits of ‘Call a friend – Hi John Howard!’ and ‘Ask the Audience’… Where do I get such a free pass for my next digression?

    • chuckle.

      it’s the intellectual prowess of Mr. Ignatieff that some fear most i believe. you can’t fake that.

  4. My take on Ignatieff’s position is that he doesn’t support torture, but accepts some forms of what he calls “coercive interrogation,” which appears to be a different category from ordinary interrogation.

    He’s written that he has trouble drawing the lines precisely, though levels of “stress and duress” appear decide which forms of “coercive interrogation” are okay and which ones aren’t, as I understand him at least.

    It seems to me, however, that even if we accept that Ignatieff would rule out the harsher forms of “coercive interrogation” as well as obvious torture, we’re still left with some other problems: with the substance of the position; with the persuasive strategies of of his argument; and with his subsequent presentation of his position(s) while in politics.

    First, the relevant international convention rules out not only torture but “other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture.” Would sleep deprivation and some denial of food and water–countenanced in _The Lesser Evil_–count?

    Second, Ignatieff’s proposed solution to “ticking bomb cases”–prosecute the well-intentioned torturer, but permit a claim of necessity in mitigation of sentence–could end up effectively introducing the principle of “illegal but legitimate” into the treatment of prisoners, where it could do much harm.

    Note, next, the logical problems with this statement: “The argument that torture and coercion do not work is contradicted by the dire frequency with which both practices occur. ” I am not sure what logical link connects a practice’s frequency with its efficacy. Can we argue the effectiveness of spanking as a technique of parental discipline from the frequency of its practice? This seems to me to be a version of the fallacy known as the argument from tradition.

    Furthermore, there seems to be to an uncritically-examined assumption about the aims of torturers or overly coercive interrogators. Are there just sadists and well-intentioned information-seekers driven by necessity? Perhaps information-seeking to protect citizens is not the only reason states authorize brutal treatment of detainees.

    A further question arises here about Ignatieff’s whole intent in shaping the debate about torture and “coercive interrogation” in his writings. Part of that intention seems to be to define the acceptable limits of debate. We’re not to treat torture defenders as “moral monsters,” for example. I don’t know what he means by “moral monster,” but I also don’t know why a pro-torture position (Dershowitz? ) shouldn’t be considered beyond the pale.

    Maybe this maneuver was part of a well-intentioned attempt to find new grounds for absolutely ruling out torture, but if so, I don’t think he’s thought it through.

    A final question has to do with Ignatieff’s own presentation of his position since becoming a politician.

    “Whatever else is wrong with me,” he told the Star, “do you really think that a human rights professor would come within a million miles of endorsing torture?”

    As I say above, I don’t think Ignatieff endorses torture, but I also think the rhetorical question was aimed at creating the impression that there’s a lot more distance between his position and that of non-monstrous torture defenders than there actually is in essays which are more confusing than they are complex or nuanced (a defence sometimes claimed for them).

    For what it’s worth, I consider that tendency to rather misleadingly re-cast his own history in print to include his “Getting Iraq Wrong” piece for the NYT, and so I don’t think I agree with AW on the “great and public effort” to explain his support for that illegal war of aggression, unless “great” is stripped of its positive connotations. and simply means something like “strenuous” (though in that case the adjective I’d choose, in fact, would be ‘tortured’).

    • Great, in this case, equals strenuous.

      • Then I concur.

    • What i don’t respect or perhaps understand about Ignatieffs mental gymnastics is his failure to take a moral position, such as: torture may on rare occasions be effective, but nevertheless should never be resorted to, no matter how tempting, in a free and Democratic society.

      • And yet he basically does say that, right?

        “We cannot torture, in other words, because of who we are.”

        He just refuses to leave that statement uninvestigated.

        • I do see your pt. However i’m often left with the feeling that Ignatieff rarely refuses to leave any statement he makes, on this subject in particular, uninvestigated. In other words he frequently doesn’t leave things unsaid that perhaps are better left unsaid. Anyway there’s no sense in belabouring it. That seems to be, for better or worse, who he is. I don’t expect perfection from the man, but coherence is nice.

        • Well, I agree with this last point because “we” apparently does not include “our fellow citizens.”

          And that’s one problem among several with Ignatieff’s writings on this matter.

        • This phrase contains the essence of what i dislike about Ignatieff’s writing [ i don’t mean i dislike it all ]
          Why not: ” We cannot torture, because of who we are.” ? It’s still to oblique for me. But i like the conciseness. Maybe he just needs a good editor. Ahem…i not too busy right now Michael.

          • minus the ,
            Sigh…er forget it Michael i’m busy.

  5. I tend to agree with yr assesment of Ignatief as liking to debate himself in public. This does lead to the temptation a la Ivison, to brand him a quibbler. I fear he is that. It doesn’t mean however that he isn’t brave by his own lights. I’m not naturally drawn to this kind of personality. I guess it’s no secret that i greatly admired Trudeau – a good deal of that was precisely because he wasn’t a quibbler, he took a stand and defended it, willing to pay the logical cosequence of doing so – that is the risk of being wrong. [Of course you could say W did the same, so choose yr poison?]
    Very few of us have that degree of courage, or even confidence. Here i think is part of the Ignatieff enigma. I don’t think he’s a natural risk taker, but prhaps his conceit tells him he is. Now maybe i’m over-analysing ; certainly another Ignatieff trait. But no ones perfect.
    Well, i’m no closer to pinning the man down than when i started. However i do like one thing about him. He is a man of experience – he’s been out there, even risked his life for his stories. So at least some of his ideas are grounded in real world experience. When he speaks from them i hear authenticity ; but when he puts on his Harvard quibbler alter ego i reach for the tylenol.

    • I find it refreshing to see a politician who actually explores the counter argument to his own position.

      That is my read of Ignatieff’s words. Not acknowledging (or understanding) the other side of the argument is a bit ostrich-like.

      • I totally agree with you. Perhaps its simply his style that bothers me?

  6. Aaron, with all possible respect, by seizing on one phrase from John Ivison’s recent column–“Just how tough is Michael Ignatieff?”– you are completely missing the larger point. In fact, the examples you cited only bolster Ivison’s case.

    No one is calling Michael Ignatieff a “ninny”. No one is claiming that he lacks “toughness” in the sense that you’re using the word. What Ivison and others are saying is that Michael Ignatieff talks a big game, but doesn’t back it up with action. As Tim Powers put it, he’ll say anything but stands for nothing. Michael Ignatieff treats real world issues as if they were the subject an intellectual exercise rather than tough choices that effect real peoples’ lives.

    Take the examples you cite: coercive interrogation and the war in Iraq.

    Sure, it’s all well and good to debate how many angels can dance on the head of pin while you’re sipping brandy at the Harvard faculty club, but when you start pushing your academic musings into the day to day political discourse it has real world consequences. In the real world, “coercive interrogation”, “detention without trial” and “preventative war” can very quickly become torture, Guantanamo Bay and several hundred thousand dead Iraqis.

    And worse yet, Michael Ignatieff still doesn’t seem to have learned his lesson. He gives the Harper government a pass on the budget and calls it “putting them on probation”. He allows an open, public revolt of his Newfoundland caucus and tries to claim it as his own. He’s put himself in the same position as Stephane Dion (forced to choose between giving the Conservative government everything it wants and triggering an election he can’t afford to fight) and he’s called that “putting the Sword of Damocles over Stephen Harper’s head”.

    Come on! Are you really falling for all this?

    How long before we can just admit that all of Michael Ignatieff’s tough talk is just that–talk?

    • “No one is calling Michael Ignatieff a ‘ninny.'”
      VS.
      “Sure, it’s all well and good to debate how many angels can dance on the head of pin while you’re sipping brandy at the Harvard faculty club…”

      Ok. Silly question. Would you have been assuaged if he had voted down the budget and either (a) become prime minister as the leader of an unprecedented coalition, or (b) forced an election? Would you feel better about him seeing his “tough” talk lead to such action?

      • None of his critics seems to have addressed that elephant in the room.

      • “Ok. Silly question. Would you have been assuaged if he had voted down the budget and either (a) become prime minister as the leader of an unprecedented coalition, or (b) forced an election? Would you feel better about him seeing his “tough” talk lead to such action?”

        Ah, yes. Option #1. Yes, please.

        Obviously, I’d still have concerns about Ignatieff being Prime Minister, but I have concerns about Stephen Harper being Prime Minister, so avoiding Ignatieff is no reason to keep Harper power.

        As for the nature of the coalition being “unprecedented”, I assume you mean “hasn’t happened in Canada before”. By that standard our only political options would be to keep electing the same old tried hacks ad infinitum. Coalition governments are a totally normal part of parliamentary governance and occur all over the world. The only reason they’ve been rare in Canada and the UK is because we’ve both had largely two dominated political systems because we are among the only countries in the world to maintain a first past the post voting systems that skew the system toward major parties and majority governments. But the days of successive majority governments are quite simply O-V-A-H, Ovah, and we’re gonna have to deal with that sooner or later.

        I want to be clear: this isn’t all about the coalition. Not by any means. Failing to bring down the Harper government–in and of itself–certainly isn’t reason enough to write Michael Ignaiteff off as all hat and no cattle (all talk and no action). I’ve cited a number of examples of Ignatieff’s clear pattern of engaging in a lot of “serious” talk that amounts to nothing good in the real worold. I mean the man has literally no record getting ANYTHING done for real people. And his ventures into the world of real politics over the last eight years suggest he simply doesn’t grasp the practical differences being theory and practice.

        As for your comparison between the word “ninny” and my line about the Harvard facaulty club, you’re again missing the point. We’ve had plenty of leaders who could fit in drinking brandy at the Harvard facaulty club–Trudeau, Pearson, Martin, Douglas, Lewis and Broadbent; just to name a few. The difference between those guys (pity they’re all guys) and Michael Ignatieff is that they could tell the difference between the classroom and real world.

        (I’m reminded of the fact that, back in the days when eugenics were in vogue, Tommy Douglas wrote a paper that–among other things–examined the many potential benefits of forced sterilization. But while Premier of Saskatchewan Douglas rejected multiple attempts to actually implement such a policy. And guess what else he didn’t do? He didn’t write articles in the New-York-Freaking-Times about the benefits of tubal ligation and then slap himself silly when somebody took him up on idea. Nope, didn’t do that.)

        • Sorry. Just fixing the typos and cleaning up the grammar…

          “Ok. Silly question. Would you have been assuaged if he had voted down the budget and either (a) become prime minister as the leader of an unprecedented coalition, or (b) forced an election? Would you feel better about him seeing his “tough” talk lead to such action?”

          Ah… yes. Option #1. Yes, please.

          Obviously, I’d still have concerns about Michael Ignatieff being Prime Minister, but I have concerns about Stephen Harper being Prime Minister, so avoiding Ignatieff is no reason to keep Harper in power.

          As for the nature of the coalition being “unprecedented”, I assume you mean that it “hasn’t happened in Canada before”. By that standard our only political options would be to keep electing the same old tried hacks ad infinitum. Coalition governments are a totally normal part of parliamentary governance and occur all over the world. The only reason they’ve been rare in Canada and the UK is because we’ve both had largely two party dominated political systems. This is in turn largely a product of the fact we are among the only countries in the world to maintain a first past the post voting system that skews election results toward major parties and majority governments. But the days of successive majority governments are quite simply O-V-A-H, Ovah, and we’re gonna have to deal with that sooner or later.

          I want to be clear: this isn’t all about the coalition. Not by any means. Failing to bring down the Harper government–in and of itself–certainly isn’t reason enough to write Michael Ignaiteff off as all hat and no cattle (all talk and no action). I’ve cited a number of examples of Ignatieff’s clear pattern of engaging in a lot of “serious” talk that amounts to nothing–or nothing good–for those of us living in the real world. I mean, the man has literally no record getting ANYTHING done for real people. And his ventures into the world of real politics over the last eight years suggest he simply doesn’t grasp the practical differences being theory and practice.

          As for your comparison between the word “ninny” and my line about the Harvard facaulty club, you’re again missing the point. We’ve had plenty of leaders who could fit in drinking brandy at the Harvard facaulty club–Trudeau, Pearson, Martin, Douglas, Lewis and Broadbent; just to name a few. The difference between those guys (pity they’re all guys) and Michael Ignatieff is that they could tell the difference between the classroom and real world.

          (I’m reminded of the fact that, back in the days when eugenics were in vogue, Tommy Douglas wrote a paper that–among other things–examined the many potential benefits of forced sterilization. However, while Premier of Saskatchewan, Douglas rejected multiple attempts to actually implement such a policy. And guess what else he didn’t do? He didn’t write articles in the New-York-Freaking-Times about the benefits of tubal ligation and then slap himself with surprise when somebody took him up on idea. Nope, didn’t do that.)

          • Well. All right. As long as you’re consistent about it. I suspect some of those who criticize him for, say, allowing the Nfld MPs to vote against the budget, would have criticized him if he’d chosen any of the other options.

            As for his record on getting things done for “real people,” what would you have liked him to do in that regard as an opposition MP for the last three years?

    • I think you’re projecting. Your’e buying the Tory bilge without qualifier. Each of his decisions could easily be seen in a different light and indeed be seen as brave, or at least bucking conventional wisdom. Like many folks you think there’s only one way to do some thing or approach a problem. There isn’t. He took some decisions, that;s the important part. Some of them may prove wrong -them’s the breaks. Yr just reinforcing AW pt. There’s more than one way to lead. Because Iggy doesn’t meet yr expectations of leadership is hardly a sign of failure.

      • Not so much, rc. I like that you presume to know me so well to say that I am someone who thinks “there’s only one way to do some thing or approach a problem”. In fact, my analysis is so independent of what I think Michael Ignatieff should, or should not, do that you’ve mistaken me for someone who might “[buy] the Tory bilge”. I assure you nothing could be further from the truth.

        My problem with Ignatieff has nothing to do with his decisions but the lack there of. He has no record. He has no real world experience in governing. And while for many people that would not be a debilitating problem, he displays absolute no evidence that he understands the difference academic theory and practical governing.

        Put another way, I would have no problem if Ignatieff were to simply say “I support torture. And GITMO. And the Bush doctrine. And while I’m at it I’m going to give Stephen Harper a blank to extend the mission in Afghanistan and on his budget. And I prefer letting Harper run the country than governing with the NDP.”

        But Ignatieff doesn’t claim to support those things. He claims to support some idealized theorectical version of these policies that has no connection to reality.

        • Give him a chance , if yr right then iguess we’ll find out soon enough. It’s not like he’s planning to start an illegal war or something. Sorry about the assumptions.

    • I’m not sure why anyone would find it necessary the talking point of a right wing rag. Oh, so John Ivison says Ignatieff dithers, well then, let’s talk. Yawn. You’ll note too, in the hard hitting “piece”, Ivison just glances over Harper’s pandering, the man has now completely betrayed EVERYTHING he supposedly stood for. Going after Ignatieff, and forgetting about Harper, is like hanging in the salad bar, while the prime rib gets cold.

      The good news, that rideological propaganda rag is on life support and won’t see 2010 :)

  7. to no one in particular:

    i am always amazed at the extreme degrees ppl will go to in order to win an inexcusable argument; and the extreme notions that ppl apply to the “norm”/general situations; of course there is always an exception to the rule; but that is not, nor should it be, the basis on which we as human beings behave. nice excuse to abuse other human beings; do you want or need to create righteous enemies or what? i.e., to attack where you have no enemy is pretty stupid and unhelpful to your own security or sense of moral superiority.

    to the degree you and your loved ones are personally willing to endure said torture it is to that same degree you can apply it to others. i.e., were the shoe on the other foot, i doubt you’d so willingly agree or accept that torture is a “good” thing while you witness your loved one or our troops being treated other than the Geneva Convention dictates in a combatant situation; in the last century the Nazi troops were treated better. from the enemy’s point of view you are the enemy; they can justify as well.

    as a result of this barbaric mentality the reprisal and warring continues. to what end? mutual suicide? maybe these ppl all ought to be voted onto a remote island somewhere so they can fight it out to the death leaving the rest of us to figure things out in more human and decent ways.

    are you willing to bear the civil (lawsuit) and moral and other repercussions re the innocence of the overwhelming majority of ppl targeted who endured torture for the sake of your expediency? do you think the balance of power in the world will always remain as it is? suppose your enemy becomes the world power? how will you stop them from employing the same techniques of “coercion” that you obviously don’t want applied to you?

    this “pro-torture” argument is not black and white but very revealing of the shortsightedness of its more rabid proponents. and i doubt a “majority” in our countries accept torture out of hand except in the minds of the willing (those willing to “shape” and “coach” opinion for the highest bidder).

    As for Ignatieff, because of the “Obama effect” i can see that the conservatives are very scared of the Liberal leader and his eloquence; they’re really grasping at straws to try to “equalize” Ignatieff (dumb him down) to Stephen H’s level. i doubt anyone but Stephen H owns the great disappointment many of us feel about him and the disdain many in this country have for the PM.

  8. One point, among many, that Ignatieff deserves to be commended for is his willingness to discuss the efficacy of torture, as in the quotation Aaron has here. It’s always seemed like a cop-out to me to say, “Well, torture is never effective anyway.” Besides begging the question of what we would think of torture if it were effective, this seems to me to be a form of wish fulfillment: torture doesn’t work, so they won’t use torture even if we allow it.

    As Ignatieff writes, it’s exceedingly strange that torture should be so common if it doesn’t work. In fact, physical pain does work, especially when combined with sensory deprivation. It may not work as a way of extracting reliable but unverifiable information such as might help us fight Al Qaeda, but it would work if combined with other intelligence. There is therefore a real danger of our using it. The fact that Ignatieff is willing to point this out is in itself very admirable: I hope his argument catches on and the half-assed “torture doesn’t work” myth dies.

    • hmmm… so it’s all good as long as it happens to somebody else? where do you draw the line? at your own person? of course!

      one of the real dangers is in feeling the need to use it at all. i see torture as shorthand to getting a result that the torturer wants to hear, which i think of as the real danger; because justifications tend to creep in when things go wrong unless you have a person of integrity willing to “face the music” of condemnation and endures jail time.

      but as i commented before, there are always exceptions, however rarely they occur; i.e., a narcissictic psychopath like Bundy who broke down and cried like a big baby when he was on his way to the chair; applying such methods to him might have achieved peace for the families whose loved ones he murdered and the victims whom he never revealed.

      • LeenieJ… i think you just answered your own question about “where do you draw the line” (the bundy exception). The tricky part is that once you admit that a line can be drawn, you also implicitly acknowledge the possibility that lines can be drawn elsewhere. It’s a slippery slope, and one that Ignatieff alluded to.

        • yeah… it’s very hard to even entertain the possibility of doing this to another human being; that’s my bottom line; but i realize some in our society are less than human in their behaviour towards others. we have to defend somehow against that.

      • I think you’ve misunderstood what I was saying — which, if you’ll pardon me, is itself rather a good illustration of why we shouldn’t get too nuance-y about torture.

        I was just echoing Ignatieff’s argument that it’s doubly important to emphasise that torture is not good because it actually can be effective (depending on what you can check the torture-derived intelligence against).

        “i see torture as shorthand to getting a result that the torturer wants to hear, which i think of as the real danger”

        I fear this underestimates the efficacy of modern torture. If you’re just torturing someone to obtain a confession, as the Spanish Inquisition used to do or modern police states might do, I think you can get a confession pretty straightforwardly. But torture, scientifically applied, can break down the ability not to tell the truth, or rather not to tell what’s on your mind, which after many days or weeks of torture will be everything you yourself think is important, assuming you’re trying to hide something. The key point is that the torturer does not stop torturing you when you give an answer — the right answer, the wrong answer, it doesn’t matter. They squeeze you like a lemon. It’s not like 24, it’s more like reverse psychological therapy. It’s a pure myth that people can withstand torture — you can’t.

        • this discussion seems very sterile and logical; but i’ll bet the Nazis were sometimes very methodical and scientific about their methods with the 11 million they destroyed. are they to be applauded? that’s no better than those in the Spanish Inquisition which many suppose was less “nice” somehow? it’s absurd to try to compare modern or historic methods; they all amount to the same thing. the torturer losing their humanity and attempting to destroy someone else’s.

          have you ever heard Maher Arar’s story? i have no faith in those who employ such techniques to be modern or efficacious about it; or is it that Americans or Canadians applying the techniques are “better” or more “modern” about it? sorry, it all seems very barbaric to me; and too much of a slippery slope as we have seen (Abu Ghraib, eg)

          you say ppl can’t withstand torture; how do you know? there are repercussions to the person but it can be done. i’ve seen the consequences.

          • Leenie, I’m surprised it took 38 posts before Godwin’s law was invoked :)

            Jack isn’t denying that torture is applied wantonly, stupidly, and ineffectively around the world. Jack is just pointing out that occasionally, torture does work; and that fact is the primary justification used by evil people to excuse torture as a necessary practice.

          • Critical,

            i think that it’s very appropriate to raise the spectre of the Nazi way since many of those wonderful modern torture techniques stem from their amoral, inhumane scientific experiments conducted on “real live” ppl; undesirables like Gypsies (not pc i know), the mentally ill, the elderly, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, unwanted children/maybe orphans, “revenge placements”, oh yeah, and Jews. the bottom line about such a discussion reflects on the reality that human life is involved. either it’s sacred or it’s not; even for ppl you dislike or disagree with.

            in one discussion i viewed last year on tvo on this very topic a panelist actually tried to suggest we ought to feel badly for the torturer since it’s such a difficult task; what idiocy and insensitivity and lack of respect for the humanity of those who have survived such horrors and those who have succumbed in real death to such evil! hence my comment, “as long as it happens to somebody else”.

          • LeenieJ (imho), please bother reading what I’ve been saying on this thread before saying I’m too “clinical.” If you’re going to participate in a rational discussion like this on a dreadful subject, please don’t accuse others of being too rational.

            Of course people resist torture, and suffer greatly as a result, but no one can withstand it, i.e. outlast it, not the modern systematic scientific kind which the Americans have been using. That is an essential part of its horror. You can’t just say, Oh, I would resist, not only because you couldn’t but because that shows you don’t understand what torture involves. Torture presumes that the victim is guilty: that’s its inherent logic. Cf. ancient Roman legal practice, where there was actually no way for a slave to give evidence in court except under tortured, it being presumed that all slaves were liars. It shrivels up a human life for the sake of the information it might thereby obtain.

            Torture not only disgusts us in its practical infliction of immense pain and in its gross violation of human rights; it not only condemns the torturer, his superiors, and his nation in the eyes of God (an important consideration, however you care to phrase it); it is also incompatible with our legal system, which is fundamentally based on the presumption of innocence. This, I believe, is the secret of its emotional appeal to extremists: it offers the chance to condemn someone without hearing them out, the chance to draw the line and say: below this line our enemies, however defined, are inherently guilty. Any one of these reasons would be enough to ban torture, but if we don’t spell them all out we weaken our case.

        • JM
          Something else that may be important here is the psychology of torture. We assume rationality behind the torturer ie: they wnt to get at the truth in order to protect us or the state. I don’t know if i buy it. It’s certainly the reason many otherwise sensible people are willing to condone it. But what if it’s just a way of reinforcing the belief systems of those who torture. You hear what you want to hear because it’s what you want to hear. there’s no detached search for the truth. i may be overthinking this but since we are always expected to take these things on good faith, how can we judge. Take our word for it doesn’t cut it for me anymore.

          • Ouch! Why is it that things we write at 3am read like the ravings of a 911 conspiracy theorist next day? Still i stand behind it, that is until i don’t anymore.
            Michael Ignatieff.
            [ sorry Mike, i do love you, i really do. I just couldn’t help myself.]

        • So to be clear, your readings into the topic (I hope you are not experimenting yourself!) claim that at its height, and after a time, torture may provide a large amount of data, the only useful portions of which require co-obboration with what is already known? Because that’s an extremely limited efficacy at best.

          • Don’t know if that’s for me. if so i didn’t get yr pt.

          • (I think Mike T.’s post might be aimed at me . . . answering as though it were anyway!)

            Yes, I believe that’s it. The key point is “verifiable.” Say you’re the KGB and you’ve got some poor wretch, too fond of liberty, in the Lubyanka prison. For whatever reason, you think he’s part of a Western spy network. You’re going to shoot him anyway, so it doesn’t really matter if he confesses or not, but before you do you want to get names so you can roll up the rest of the network. (This is how the French won the Battle of Algiers, by the way.) The information he gives you before he can’t talk anymore is verifiable: you write it all down and evaluate it later by arresting the people he tells you. And at many points you can tell if he’s lying because you’re checking what he tells you against what you already know.

            In the case of torturing terrorists (and random taxi cab drivers who have been caught up in your dragnet), it’s not effective because a) you don’t have a lot of information to go on, so you can’t check his account very well as you’re torturing him: thus you can’t really tell if he’s lying or inventing; b) you can’t call up the local police in Leningrad and get them to verify anything new. Thus it’s ineffective for the war on terror. But it would be effective in other circumstances. Which is why it must be condemned outright, from the start, and not because it’s not effective: if you say it’s not effective, you’re making a practical argument about a moral issue and leaving the door open for some barbarian to say, “Actually, it is effective so we can use it!”

    • As Ignatieff writes, it’s exceedingly strange that torture should be so common if it doesn’t work.

      I still don’t follow this logic: why is the prevalence of a practice evidence of its effectiveness?

  9. Hear, hear. The “torture doesn’t work” myth is analogous to the “heroin doesn’t really make you feel good” argument against drug use. Of course heroin makes you feel good – that’s what leads to addiction.

    The proper argument is against the overwhelming negative consequences of using it, without denying that there can be at least some temporary positive consequences.

  10. If so, the endurance of the accusation that he does actually becomes an even trickier issue to decipher. Is it a failing of his writing? Is it a failing of his political sensibility? Is it a failing of his critics? Or a failing of our politics to identify the “truth?”

    On his writing: In a good essay, you acknowledge your opponents arguments and try to refute them. Ignatieff’s argument would be that much weaker if he chose to ignore the so called “positives” of torture.

    I think your last suggestion is the correct one: our politics often fails to identify the truth. But then again, politics isn’t a game of truths but a game of perception. Truth helps to sell an image, but it’s not a necessary requirement.

    • Perhaps it’s more accurate to say our politics isn’t really interested in the truth. Probably because society at large isn’t either.

  11. So does Michael Ignatieff condone torture? Does he condone waterboarding or stress positions or the use of dogs or the so-called “frequent flyer” program or any other of Dick Cheney’s little fantasies? From my reading—while remaining open to being convinced otherwise—I’d say no.

    If so, the endurance of the accusation that he does actually becomes an even trickier issue to decipher. Is it a failing of his writing? Is it a failing of his political sensibility? Is it a failing of his critics? Or a failing of our politics to identify the “truth?”

    (head spinning) wha? they so want a MAJOR EPIC FAIL from Mr. Ignatieff? i think they’re confusing the identities of Stephen H with Mr. Ignatieff who has nothing to do with Cheney and the Republican/conservative gang; kinda like a “false friend” operation instead of a “false flag” operation. i wish they’d realize it’s over, history has already passed the conservatives by; ppl want better than this from all of our politicians; but then the conservatives wouldn’t have an edge over their political opponents otherwise, if you can call “that” kind of nastiness an edge.

    and what is with the conservative obssession to lecture on and interpret reality and everyone else’s ideas for us? it of course precludes them from telling us anything useful about their non-position (i saw the PM lecture President Obama during their press conference; it was soooo lame);

    remember how they described the Green Shift as just a carbon tax when it was really a shift of the emphasis from earnings to consumption and on environmental responsibility using already existing gas taxes with any proceeds going directly back to the ppl along with additional applied taxes being refunded? soon we face major tariffs (read imposed carbon tax) for our “dirty oil” while the US implements Dion’s ideas, including the just society and Green/Infrastructure Job aspects which would have been implemented on a national level here in Canada. instead we have “cap’n’trade” and sequestration that will benefit us in like 50 years! (oh yay).

    this creepy attack on Mr. Ignatieff makes me take more favourable notice of his intelligence and brilliance, much to my own chagrin (Mr. Martin’s political assassination of Chretien was disgusting to say the least but not anything like what the conservatives did to character assassinate Dion). i trust nothing the conservatives tell me; i dislike not having a Progressive Conservative option in govt, though. i can deal with the stupidities of the other parties better, but the conservatives have brought all this very negative “double speak”, subtle attack, and filler-con, multiple personality login type hijack of boards and the media to a whole new low level; they have made it an artform (witness CBC sometimes; yikes!).

  12. I think Ignatieff supports some form of torture. Anybody who forces his readers to endure such tortured logic as “coalition if necessary, but not necessarily a coalition” or his flip-flops on Iraq has to — at least subconsciously — believe in some form of psychological torture.

  13. I know this is bending things away from Ignatieff’s partilcular angle in the quoted passage, but I think the larger issue has to do with ‘the rule of law’ in general, as much as torture, per se.

    I agree that it’s not particularly useful or true to argue against torture on the basis of its efficacy. I’d go a step further and say that attempts to bracket such practices as necessarily taboo are naive. After all, we routinely condone the abuse of human rights as a necessary tool in maintaining social order (jails, police ‘grilling’ of suspects, enforced parole conditions – all these limit one’s normal rights as a member of society).

    Ignatieff has discussed the idea that torture exists as a polar extreme on a continuum of interrogation techniques, and that defining it outright can be difficult (does keeping a suspect up until 3:00 a.m. count as torture? How about offering a medium security jail instead of a maximum security one?). As much as I abhor outright physical abuse, I don’t think we do ourselves any favours by trying to ban it, lest its definition become eventually all-encompassing. Consider the current status of categories like ‘sexual assault’ in the legal system, or ‘bullying’ in the workplace and schools. Both categories have grown to encompass acts that once would have been considered relatively minor, but are now morally aligned with the more heinous behaviours those labels once applied to. We don’t want to see torture similarly codified and expanded to mean most everything done in the name of interrogation.

    But the rule of law is another matter. The way the USA has gone about using torture (vascillating between ad hoc justifications and farming it out to other nations) has called their very legal foundation into question. So too has the use of Security Certificates in Canada, I hasten to add (and why that issue has fallen off the radar of our public discourse is beyond me). The underlying message is that when push comes to shove, our constitution and our laws are near meaningless. Not up to the task. A convenience for peaceful and unproblematic times.

    So, the problem with torture as used by the USA has a lot more to do with the very moral foundation of their society (if we accept that a nation’s constitution and laws are a reflection of such). At the same time as they descended into the legal grey zone of using torture and abusing the notion of ‘prisoner of war’ to skirt their own laws, they pulled themselves out of the World Court, more or less, on the basis that their military should be exempt from accountability to that body. Again, the message was inescapable – laws and rules are a luxury.

    So, it’s all well and good to hate torture. But far more serious is the near-complete abandonment of the rule of law. Remember, laws can always be challenged, modified and altered (as they should be – morality is contextual). But to have our governments throw the entire concept of rule of law overboard does not bode well for the future. It threatens our security and social cohesion far more than the torture of any individual ever could.

    Sorry to go so long!

  14. I recall when it was commonly pointed out by the “experts” that not only are steroids harmful but they don’t work. Later they retreated to ” it works for building bulky muscles but not for sports that require agility and skill.” I think it is pretty clear now that if you are an elite athelete and you want to get better, a careful program of steroids will help.

    Ignatieff simply points out that torture works. If I ask you for your bank accounts pin number, you tell me to mind my own business. If I cut off one of your fingers… you probably tell me. Ignatieff’s argument is that torture works but we ban it anyway due to morality and the long term ramifications to our society if we allow it.

    Jack, your comparison to anti-sematism is weak. One would have to go to a fairly convoluted argument to provide even short-term benefits from racial or religious based hatred. On the other hand, it is easy to imagine saving a child, stopping a bomb etc by crossing the line on “coercive interrogation”. (Hollywood and cheap novels are full of this theme). A call to ban torture that does not recognise its potential effectiveness and potential for short-term benefits is doomed to fail.

  15. As soon as I saw who the author if this article was I knew he would find Iggy not guilty of supporting torture. The fact is Iggy was a strong supporter of the Iraq invasion, the Bush administration and its techniques to fight the enemy. To say otherwise is disingenous. Iggy as everyone says is a prolific writer and has said many things over the years. Does the author honestly expect Canadians to sit down and analyze iggy’s writings? The fact is it is well known that Iggy supported the Republican party, its president and their policies and lived for 30 years outside the country. He had no impact on the big issues faced by this country during that time.. For the Count to try to disavow these political realities or try to explain himself as he did in the Times article will show to Canadians that he is a hypocrite and a flip flopper of the highest order. Sorry Iggy Canadians will not buy a patrician, arrogant elitist as their PM. They would prefer a person who has the ability to understand what they are going through and will stick with the Conservative government in the next election.

  16. Well I would say that there is definitely one form of torture Iggy definitely supports = (the books he wrote) = good grief I was scanning one this weekend but would rather have spent the time being water boarded by the Starbuck’s waitress – (chapters has a starbucks – rather good marketing if you ask me)

    • You beat me to the punch.
      I don’t necessarily know if Iggy condones torture, but he certainly condones tortuous writing.

      I am also uncertain as to whether he is setting up a straw man argument against torture, in order to strengthen the case FOR torture. A lot of authors have done that in the past (Machiavelli’s the Prince is full of that).

      For what is worth, here is what I think his point is.
      1. Torture is sometimes the only effective way to get information quickly.
      2. Still we can’t torture because of our liberal values.
      3. That said, we need to recognize that we run big risks by not torturing.

      If that is his point, it is actually a reasonable middle ground argument – refuting liberals that insist torture never works (generally with little evidence or experience), but also challenging conservatives that insist torture is morally justified by its consequences.

      • One other possible interpretation I have of his writing, is that he believes the state should have an official position of denouncing and disavowing torture, while actually letting it happen in extreme cases, but prosecuting it.

        Lets imagine that New York city is going to be nuked imminently unless some hypothetical agent of the state applies medieval torture techniques. I suspect that most agents would torture despite the personal cost of potential imprisonment (and I suspect a lot of people would look the other way while they did use torture). Even if actually convicted for using torture, I would suspect they would get early parole too.

        The point? Prosecution of torturers is a deterrent, not an absolute preventative. It ensures that agents of the state will only use torture where the benefits outweigh the cost of potential imprisonment. This means very little incidental torture, but not NO torture.

        In other words, a state can disavow and even prosecute torture, while expecting that it will probably happen anyway in ticking time bomb cases of extreme importance. Banning torture (depending on the particularities of the law), in practice, means setting a 99.9% threshold instead of a 99% threshold.

        • Very distasteful, but it does rather sound like common sense. However why are there no good examples of , ticking bomb scenarios? Could it be the proverbial urban myth? Still all of history has not yet happened,so…

  17. Reading all the erudite comments I come to one conclusion; most on this forum are effete Toronto-centric liberals who have no idea about the looming threat to our society. The whitewashing of Ignatieff is just an exercise in deconstructionism, and that is quite obvious. If Harper or any CPC member had written what Ignatieff has written, the Toronto media would have barbequed him/her mercilessly. It has happened for much less than ‘torture’.

    Wherry attempting to rationalize Ignatieff’s musings is just whitewashing for the Toronto liberal market. Ignatieff was a “we Americans” solid supporter of Bush and his ME operations, and that is something the liberal media in Canada do not want to broach. Come the next election, Canadians will be enlightened on “we Americans” Ignatieff, and the Toronto-centric media will just have to suck it all up.

    • “most on this forum are effete Toronto-centric liberals who have no idea about the looming threat to our society”

      You’ll have to enlighten us on how where one happens to be living affects one’s analysis of moral problems. Are you implying that I’m a member of the media? Heaven forfend.

      As to the looming threats to our society, places like Vancouver and Toronto are where those threats are faced, if anywhere. Red Deer is not, repeat not, in danger.

  18. Does he support torture? In a way … it’s a moot point.

    Iggy is a proponent of big government (like every other current and potential political leader in Canada), and if you want big government then kidnapping, murder and torture – or the threat of same – are ultimately the main tools you have at your disposal.

    Big government means to forcefully compel people to behave in ways which they would not necessarily behave, in the name of “the greater good” (as defined by the leaders who wield the force). Since many people resent being enslaved, robbed and murdered in the name of a “good” which someone else has defined, they often resist and defy the threat or the application of force against them by governments. The bigger the push, the bigger the pushback.

    Politicians then have a dilemma – when they’re pushed back do they back off and give people more freedom, or do they escalate the level of force? Most democratic politicians back off and will not wantonly murder and torture their own people (contenting themselves with robbery made under threats of imprisonment). But what if the people resisting the expansion of government are not voters? What if they’re from another country and they’re resisting the imposition on them of your country’s preferred form of government in the name of “democracy” or “vital interests”? It’s a lot easier to vilify them in this case and promote or condone torture and murder. Thus you have the Arar and Khadr cases.

    Regarding domestic policy, the more strongly convinced is a politician that the continued expansion of government is required “for the the greater good”, the more likely that he will end up murdering and torturing his own people. This has been the motivation for the most heinous gulags and genocides of the last 100 years. Determined attempts to create larger and larger welfare states with more and more government control of economic activity generate more and more resistance, which provokes more violence from the leaders whose “vision” it is to impose a government-made utopia. They either become torturers and genocidal murderers or they give up their dream.

    So, yes, Iggy condones torture, to the same extent that he is determined to promote the continued expansion of government. The question is not “if”, the question is “how much”.

  19. Arron, aren’t you basically saying Michael Ignatieff is not clearly against torture?

    1. Why vote for a PM who has thought about and studied the issue of torture for decades but still not clearly ruled out Canada using torture?

    How long will it take Ignatieff to make up his mind on issues he hasn’t studied for decades, like: Canadian federal-provincial relations, EI, or any other Canadian issue they don’t have in the UK and US; economics, or infrastructure spending?

    Being Canada’s chief operating officer (i.e. PM) requires making decisions. You can’t perpetually be arguing the options without end. If Ignatieff wants to be prime minister of Canada there are some basic moral issues he must have already decided on before he can ask for us to vote for him.

    Torture is both a topical and historic subject. Ignatieff taught human rights law at Harvard. He’s clearly thought about the issue of torture. But he is an academic and lacks the leadership ability to take an open and direct stand on one side or the other of even a moral and legal issue where international law exists and clear treaties have been signed.

    2. Ignatieff is playing politics just like Cheney. He has not ruled out: permitting torture but not ordering it; ignoring torture when it occurs; failing to prosecute torturers when they enter Canada; and using some fancy Cheneyesque narrow definition of torture that excludes most known means of torture.

    3. Do we really want a PM who is ideologically far more of a “neo-con lite” Bush supporter than Harper, a man who has written entire books favoring US imperialism on the Empire Lite plan?

    Ignatieff is a small “L” liberal in the sense that Tony Blair is “left wing”. Both actively support US imperialism, the erosion of individual rights, and making their own homelands into vassal states.

  20. Mr. Wherry, to answer your question, you have to ask yourself one: is hooding combined with sleep deprivation as part of a battery of techniques of “coercive interrogation”, torture? Amnesty International thinks so: “Torturers sometimes choose methods, such as hooding or psychological torture, which leave few physical traces.” So does Human Rights Watch (paragraph also well describes Iggy’s post-9/11 mindset): “The policymakers apparently tried to have it both ways, approving highly coercive interrogation techniques, but with limits designed to assuage their consciences and satisfy their lawyers. They authorized or proposed painful “stress positions,” but said that no one position could be used for more than 45 minutes. They allowed forced standing, but only for four hours; sleep deprivation, but only for 72 hours; exposure to heat and cold, but with medical monitoring; hooding, but not in a way that limits breathing; and nudity, but not the stacking of nude bodies.”

    In his “Lesser Evils” article in the NYT Mag, a preview/summary of the book, which appeared the week the photos from Abu Ghraib came out, Ignatieff wrote the following: “Permissible duress might include forms of sleep deprivation that do not result in lasting harm to mental or physical health, together with disinformation & disorientation (like keeping prisoners in hoods) that would produce stress.” I agree with Amnesty & HRW that that is indeed torture. Do you?

    Rather than working your way through Ignatieff’s unwieldy, apparently (supposedly?) anguished, nay tortured, prose, you might do better to cut read Denis Smith’s magisterial review of his writings, Ignatieff’s World, who’s done all the hard work for you.

    You may wish to defend Ignatieff by saying that’s the only time when he was so explicit in his approval of what he likes to term “coercive interrogation” and he’s put a lot of effort to muddy this position and to present himself as a great opponent of such things. A man can change. Sure. But as Jack Mitchell, pointed out, is someone with these instincts in times of crisis the kind of person to be trusted with great responsibilities of State? Harper’s many foolish and immoral positions demonstrated the same for himself, long ago, notably on the Iraq War, where he wasn’t just wrong on the facts and the principles/morals, and so useless as to have to plagiarise another’s words, but where he actually criticised, in public and in print, his own government’s foreign policy in another country (WSJ-USA), something no leader of an “HM Loyal Opposition” had ever done in a constitutional democracy perviously, I believe, at least not in such fraught circumstances. Knave.

    If you wish to read some beautifully clear thinking & writing, read any of Dion’s articles as professor, minister & leader (I’d stick away from the Public Admin ones, though as well-written as articles on such a dense subject can be). It’s better if you read them in French but if you’re not bilingual, English is quite good too. In French though, you can really feel his debt to Montesquieu, whom he quotes quite often as well. Wonderful stuff.

    As for Ignatieff, I fear your crush will turn to heartbreak, later rather than sooner, unfortunately (and all the more upsetting for its delayed effect). Stick to a clear thinker & writer like Dion, rather than wasting your time in Iggy’s morass of anguished prose, “logic” & self-justification. I’m unfair, he (only) writes well in sensitive reporter mode, which is best enjoyed in his excellent family memoir, The Russian Album. Blood & Belonging is a decent Dummies’ Guide To Nationalism. The rest is largely tosh. Still, two good books is two more than most of us will ever write. But to take him seriously on great philosophical, moral & political matters? I like Roy McGregor, but that’d be like reading tomes by him – a sensitive reporter rarely makes a fine deep thinker. And vice-versa, of course.

  21. Now I’m just throwing this out here, but what exactly is the probability that the stance of the Canadian PM on torture is likely to profoundly impact anything?

    (apart from Omar Khadr, who is being tortured or not by somebody else’s government)

    What we should really be doing is drawing a bigger picture from Ignatieff’s writings both on torture (or the war in Iraq) and other issues. I think we are too focused on scoring points for the home team or the away team. Ignatieff’s acceptance of the usefulness of torture reflects a broad understanding that force works in the world of international relations (and in other arenas). At the same time, Ignatieff prefers to use that force to promote justice: “he-manitarianism”.

    This is a major departure from the kind of stances Canada has taken in the world over the past 50 years. Canadian prime ministers have generally either (and these are not always mutually exclusive – you can view it as more of a percentage thing):
    1. Sought to exert influence in partnership with the United States by being stalwart allies.
    (King, St. Laurent, Mulroney, Harper)
    2. Sought to exert influence through participation in international institutions.
    (Diefenbaker, Pearson, Trudeau, Chretien, Martin)

    The first group has generally been the most likely to commit Canadian troops to battle, since with the US as a hegemon, it is the most likely actor to go to war. Of the second group, only Martin’s (I think Martin is a continentalist at heart anyway) commitment of Canadian troops to Kandahar (as part of a very broad-ranging coalition) was the only major deployment of Canadian troops. By contrast, King, St. Laurent and Mulroney all joined in wars, while Harper escalated Canada’s involvement in the one he inherited from Martin.

    What is interesting about Ignatieff then, is that he sees great utility in force, but at the same time is firmly of the internationalist camp. For Iggy war is a tool that can achieve compelling moral goals, rather than a way to get bargaining chips for the next acid rain treaty.

    Ignatieff’s position may be better suited to Canada as well. The isolationism of Quebec tends to prevent Canada from engaging in the world. At least part of that antipathy to overseas engagement stems from the frequency with which Canadian policies are inseparable from American aims. Additionally, Ignatieff’s openness to asymmetric federalism (another atypical position for a Liberal) may be a way of paying off Quebec to give Ignatieff flexibility on the international arena.

    • We already had a war fought for a ” compelling moral goal”, from the right. So why not some more from the left this time? I predict yet another disaster!

      • I never said I agree with Ignatieff’s philosophy. I think Canada should put Canada first and screw the world, but talk a big game and hope nobody checks the facts (they never do). I am okay with Afghanistan, but as a bargaining chip. I am okay with foreign aid, so long as it is directed at buying off French-speaking countries in Africa that might otherwise endorse Quebec separatism, recognize an independent Quebec or treat Quebec like its own country at Francophonie meetings. I am not against humanitarian interventions happening, I am against Canada having to do work – we should free-ride, dammit.

        • Canada first! No work for Canada! Sorry have i provoked a sarcastic backlash that i’m not equipped to decypher?

  22. Stop reading this article and go read the original piece that Ignatieff wrote to make your own assessment.

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