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The Lesser Evil$
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Michael Ignatieff

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780748618729

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748618729.001.0001

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Democracy and the Lesser Evil

Democracy and the Lesser Evil

Chapter:
(p.1) Chapter One Democracy and the Lesser Evil
Source:
The Lesser Evil
Author(s):

Gifford Lectures

Publisher:
Edinburgh University Press
DOI:10.3366/edinburgh/9780748618729.003.0001

This chapter explains why the use of coercive force in a liberal democracy, not just in times of emergency, but in normal times as well, is regarded as a lesser evil. This particular view of democracy does not prohibit emergency suspensions of rights in times of terror, but it imposes an obligation on government to justify such measures publicly, to submit them to judicial review, and to circumscribe them with sunset clauses so that they do not become permanent. The chapter tries to chart a middle course between a pure civil libertarian position which maintains that no violations of rights can ever be justified and a purely pragmatic position which judges antiterrorist measures solely by their effectiveness. It argues that actions which violate foundational commitments to justice and dignity – torture, illegal detention, unlawful assassination – should be beyond the pale. But defining these limits in theory is not hard. The problem is to protect them in practice, to maintain the limits, case by case, where reasonable people may disagree as to what constitutes torture, what detentions are illegal, which killings depart from lawful norms, or which preemptive actions constitute aggression. Neither necessity nor liberty, neither public danger nor private rights constitute trumping claims in deciding these questions.

Keywords:   coercive force, liberal democracy, rights, antiterrorist measures

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