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Nota Bene

October 26, 2001

Ignatieff Speaks to Packed House

Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, spoke to three hundred students, faculty members, and guests in a packed Hooker Auditorium Wednesday, October 17. Ignatieff addressed what it means to fight terrorism; why war is a necessary and justified reaction to the events of September 11; why the United States must uphold moral codes in a war against an enemy that recognizes no such obligations; and how to drain the "reservoirs of hatred" that lead to terrorist acts. Ignatieff's talk, titled "Human Rights and Terror," was sponsored by the Harriet L. and Paul M. Weissman Center for Leadership.

"I grew up in a very sheltered environment," said Heather Croshaw '04, who learned of the talk in her world politics class. "With all the turmoil going on, I'm trying to learn all I can--not just the hard facts you can get from CNN but the background on why this is all happening. This talk was very good because Ignatieff wasn't 'in your face' and was open to all views." Croshaw took home not only information and opinions to consider, but a signed copy of Ignatieff's book The Warrior's Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, which includes accounts of the author's travels to Afghanistan. His other books include Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond, The Needs of Strangers: An Essay on the Philosophy of Human Needs, and Isaiah Berlin: A Life.

Ignatieff began his lecture with an appeal to Croshaw and all undergraduate students not to leave September 11 and its surrounding issues to experts. "We've just been through on September 11 an event which makes nonsense of expertise," he said. "All of the issues that are crystallized by September 11 are too important to be left to experts . . . This is one of these seismic events which will define your identity as young people. You will now be able to say to your children, 'I know where I was standing when these events happened.' It's that kind of event, and it's the kind of event that means that you have a burden of reflection. You can't let the experts take this conversation over. You, for the first time in your life, have to face up to the burden of being citizens. And one of the burdens of citizenship is that you should listen to people like me, but you have to make up your own mind."

Widely regarded as one of the leading experts on human rights issues and the causes of human conflict in the world, Ignatieff argued that September 11 was a crime without an author and with a set of demands outside the political frame. "This is an act of violence that is not in the service of discernible political goals, so a political response to this act is very difficult to formulate," he argued. It was an event of "apocalyptic nihilism," he said, describing the attacks as redemptive acts against a sinful world, intending to terrify, and based on utter indifference to human cost. The attacker was not an individual, state party, or religion, and it is the lack of a determinant enemy that is the crux of our fear, Ignatieff said. "In our attempt to personify the enemy, we've identified an individual as the spider at the center of the web," he said, "an enemy we can reach and touch, when the reality is more disturbing."

In the face of this crime, Ignatieff argued that war is justified because the United States has exhausted other alternatives. He cited the national and international justice systems used to handle three previous terror attacks: the 1986 bombing in Berlin, the 1992 World Trade Center bombing in New York, and the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa. "The deterrent effect was zero," said Ignatieff of the judicial process in all three cases. He called war a justified "last resort" consistent with Article 51 of the United Nations charter and UN council opinion.

War must follow rules, a humanitarian concept that seems nonsensical to many, Ignatieff continued. Even in a war against "enemies of all mankind"--those who by their actions forfeit moral obligations--the United States must maintain the moral duties or principles of just engagement that traditionally keep war within bounds, such as caring for prisoners of war and choosing military targets, not civilian ones. Those moral principles will be difficult to follow in a war of nontraditional warfare (Seal, Green Beret, and other special unit antiterror operations), Ignatieff said, and more difficult still in the face of an enemy that breaks moral reciprocity. But even when those obligations are not complied with on the other side, he said, "we still owe an obligation to ourselves and our moral identity."

Ignatieff argued for an additional obligation as well: a commitment to rebuilding as a moral obligation. "If you hit the place, you've got to rebuild it," he said. "That is to say, the legitimacy of force in this case, in my judgment, is conditional on our willingness to stay the course to rebuild a country that has been devastated by civil war, by a tyrannical regime, and now by military attack. . . . That's a point that has not been made in public policy and it needs to be emphasized in the public debate by citizens like you."

Also in the long term, Ignatieff called the United States to commit itself to draining the reservoirs of hatred on which the terror networks depend: "There are certain kinds of hatred that we can do absolutely nothing about. There is a committed band of operatives in the al-Qaida network who cannot be deliberated with, cannot be shamed, cannot be convinced, whose hatred takes the form of a convinced, deeply considered apocalyptic nihilism about which nothing can be done other than military measures and judicial pursuit. But that doesn't mean we can do nothing about the wider network, the wider wellsprings of rage, hatred, and disillusion on which these terror networks depend. Because the chief political conceit of these networks is that they represent the excluded, the voiceless, the condemned, the shamed of the Muslim world. And there is an enormous amount of shame, suffering, and injustice in the Islamic world, and anybody who pretends otherwise is a fool."

Understanding that the Muslim world's suffering and consequent hatred has an important political connection to the policies of the United States government is painful for American citizens, "who like to be liked," Ignatieff said. While it is important to wean the Muslim world from the belief that all crime, misery, and humiliation is caused by America, he said, it is necessary for the United States to face the increasing cost of certain political policies, such as policies of support for Israel. Ignatieff, a strong supporter of Israel's right to exist, argued that although we must not take seriously the extreme political demand of removing five million people from the land, we must ask such questions as, "What state of Israel can/should the United States support?" Without this kind of honest reflection and attention to policy, Ignatieff argued, we will not see peace in the Middle East or civil order in developing nations.

Several audience questions focused on time lines and strategies for rebuilding Afghanistan after the war and after the collapse of the Taliban. One of the most difficult questions related to how a Western culture that is hated for its practices and policies might be accepted as a rebuilder of a Muslim country it has devastated. "The Western world has fed Afghanistan for ten years, and the Red Cross is the only source of prosthetic limbs for thousands of mine victims," Ignatieff responded. "The West has kept Afghanistan alive, and this gives us some credibility. I can only hope that they'll remember."

Other questions related to policies of the United States in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and elsewhere. "What policy solutions for the Middle East do you recommend as alternatives to the Iraqi sanctions that have harmed Iraq's people rather than its leadership?" asked one student. Here, Ignatieff returned to an earlier point--that the United States must not separate national interests from human rights issues. Rather than ignoring human rights violations and making deals with violators, he said, the United States must consistently face human rights violations and see that countries where human rights collapse will eventually become national security risks for the United States.

It was this point that hit home with student Molly Gower '04. "I really, really liked the talk," she said. "Although I question his assumption that there are certain forms of oppression that can only be met with physical force, I really liked his point that human rights oppression is an indicator of future risk. He gave me a lot to process, and I'm sure I'll have a lot more questions and thoughts tomorrow."

Gower's feeling seemed to be shared by many in the crowd, who stayed beyond the nearly two-hour event to discuss Ignatieff's points with one another. Among them was Asha Strazzero-Wild '04, staff assistant at the Weissman Center. A self-described "daughter of flower children" who grew up in a liberal, pacifist household, Strazzero-Wild called the presentation "amazing and very persuasive. Ignatieff provided a lot of information that's not readily out there," she said. "I don't agree with all of it, and I question what gives us the right to define what's just violence, who are terrorists versus freedom fighters. But he didn't put down anyone's ideas, and he gave me a lot to think about."

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