The Temptations of Nihilism

I listened to a fascinating program on CBC Radio's Ideas tonight.  In his January 2003 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, Canadian historian and Harvard lecturer Michael Ignatieff enunciates "The Temptations of Nihilism."  He explains the perversion of all that is good in a people by terrorist organizations: the inspiration first by often legitimate political aims; the spurious call to arms in the name of religion; the exploitation of the vigor, enthusiasm, and passion of youth; and then pursuit of the nihilistic thrill of inflicting violence on the target. 

Authorities, in their counter-terrorist activities, are often hamstrung by pressure to conform to a standard of conduct that their quarry can blithely ignore.  But in the pursuit of these perpetrators, those repelling terrorists must act above reproach if they are to earn the moral authority of their standing.

Equally, self-defense claims -- every people has a legitimate right to self-defense and to ensure its survival -- do not entitle you to do anything you please. There are no table-clearing claims in the poker sense: I’ve got trumps, therefore they clear the table, my arguments win. The self-defense and self-determination arguments don’t clear the table. All moral action requires forms of balancing.

--from a lecture delivered to the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, based on the Gifford Lectures

Ignatieff also counsels a multilateral preemptive strategy, while at the same time criticizing the ability of the UN to carry out such a mandate with its current Charter:

One of the strongest criticisms of American policies since 9/11 has been that it proceeds from an “Americans first” set of moral preferences. We can't have an effective global war on terrorists if every nation state is saying, “I'm going to take decisions on the basis of a moral preference for my citizens above all others,” because that way literally the madhouse lies.

One of the problems with the Charter now is that in a world in which there must be preemptive military action to forestall weapons transfer to terrorists, to forestall and preempt attacks before they take place, either by states in collusion with terrorists or terrorist groups alone, preemption is simply an inevitable feature. Whatever your view of its morality, it’s an inevitable part of any ongoing war on terror. 
This drives a truck straight towards the articles of the UN Charter that define aggression. We have to think in realistic terms, instead of barring the door to preemption and saying that we must maintain a definition of aggression that takes preemption off the table. The moral justifications for preemption proceed from our verifiable, imminent evidence of attack.

--again, from the CCEIA

You can hear the final instalment of the five part lecture series next Wednesday night on CBC Radio One at 2100h.  You can listen on the Web.  You can also purchase the transcript as a book from Penguin titled, The Lesser Evil.

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