Can our evil be 'better' than theirs?

April 7, 2006

By classifying wrongdoing according to its utility, the West seeks to condone breaches of human rights. But the means can never be used to justify the end, argues Conor Gearty

Until 1968, descriptions of post-Second World War substate political violence were largely informed by an anticolonial narrative, one that saw the use of such force as designed to secure freedom for local people from domination by this or that Western power. The term used to describe such insurgents was usually along the lines of "guerrilla" or - if they looked as though they might succeed - "freedom fighter".

The first attempts to force Israel to concede a Palestinian state were entirely conventional, involving acts of war and guerrilla action. These foundered on the ruthless implacability of the Israeli reaction: Arab and Palestine Liberation Organisation fighters were being killed too easily; it simply did not pay to try to fight Israel on equal terms. So the Palestinians turned to isolated acts of political violence by official and renegade factions.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Palestinians' struggle became internationalised. Assisted by this process, a successful campaign was conducted by US and Israeli strategists and their intellectual allies to castigate Palestinian violence as terrorist and therefore as uniquely evil.

This had two effects: first, it disconnected Palestinian violence from its context and turned it into a more generalised problem, one that was faced by the Western world in general, rather than something that grew out of the injustice of the occupation. It also coincided with the existence of small subversive groups in the West that used violence to secure their goals, such as the Baader-Meinhof gang. Second, the manoeuvre saw the Israeli defence forces identified with the counterterrorist authorities in the West and so cast in the same benign light - regardless of the extreme, terror-inducing nature of their violence, far in excess of what Western authorities needed to use to cope with their own subversives.

The joint interest of the West and Israel in developing a common front against terrorism was consolidated in the 1980s. These were the years of Ronald Reagan's presidency, when pressure was being ratcheted up on the Soviet Union, or the Evil Empire (as opposed to the Axis of Evil). A succession of books, articles and terrorist commentaries made the link between the Soviet Union and the sponsorship of international terrorism in general and of the PLO in particular. This framework for seeing the Israeli-Arab conflict, embedded in public discourse in the 1970s as part of a worldwide contagion of irrational terror, remains to this day. The Soviet dimension has been replaced by a new pernicious supremo, radical Islam.

Where once it was the Kremlin, it is now al-Qaeda.

Since the declaration of the War on Terror, the George W. Bush Administration has made various moves away from democratic accountability, the rule of law and human dignity.

The challenge to human rights is manifest, but what has been the reaction of human rights defenders? Most progressives and public intellectuals have been fierce in denunciation. But this has not been a unanimous response. A substantial number of lawyers, media commentators and academics, particularly in the US, have supported the actions of the Administration.

Many have been supposed human rights experts, professors and lawyers allegedly well versed in the subject. This is not to say that they all give the White House carte blanche; enough differences are maintained for critical distance to continue to appear to be preserved. And they disagree among themselves as well: at conferences and in books they argue about the morality of this or that kind of sensory deprivation and sometimes even come down against indefinite detention without charge. The details matter less than the fact of the discussions: internment, torture, coercive interrogation, covert surveillance and other manifestations of lawless state power are no longer simple wrongs to be avoided and severely punished when they occur. Rather, they have become a set of proposed solutions to supposed ethical dilemmas that need to be considered and debated, as you might consider and debate any kind of policy proposal. The unspeakable is no longer unspoken. Even the greatest of our human rights taboos - the prohibition on torture and inhuman and degrading treatment - has become just another point of view, and to some people an eccentrically absolutist one at that.

It is not hard to see how Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld have taken such a position. But how have a substantial number of liberal progressives and human rights intellectuals coped with taking such a line? This is where the War on Terror plays its part - it supplies the "ethical dilemma" from which all else flows. Those who take this line tend also to accept the idea of a global campaign of terrorism that threatens us all. This leads them to see human rights not as a subject concerned with the powerless individual, but rather as an idea that finds its clearest expression in the West, indeed as something highly particular to the West, one of the reasons why it considers its culture to be superior to that of others. In this way, the "human" is taken out of "human rights", the particular is superseded by the general, and the subject becomes more about values than people. On this analysis, respect for human rights becomes this abstract thing that we in the West must defend against those who would, by destroying our culture, also wreck this precious but vulnerable commitment.

A leading figure who in many ways epitomises this discourse is Michael Ignatieff. In his latest work on torture - extracts of which appear in this month's Prospect magazine - he is as clear as he can be about his opposition to torture. But he appears not to appreciate that by accepting at face value the concept of a War on Terror and by defending the idea that democratic states have the right to engage in necessary evil to defend themselves against greater evil, he is continuing to provide a moral framework for others less ethically squeamish than he is to do evil. He does so by saying, first, that evil is necessary and, second, that the professor - brainy guy though he is - can have no monopoly (no understanding actually) of what necessity entails in this world of competing evils.

Once these assumptions about terrorism and good and evil are accepted, it becomes clear that the Western/Israeli democracies are indeed entitled to do some wrong in their struggle for survival. The human rights justification goes along the following lines. Unlike the terrorists, the defenders of democracy know that what they are doing (say they have to do) is wrong (or at least a bit wrong), even when they are doing it, and they have a set of democratic values to hand to stop things getting out of control.

So if we change our rules to allow us to respond in an evil way or our operatives stray over the boundary into evil behaviour without our explicit authorisation, it is really not so bad - fine even? - because all that is happening is that evil is being met with (lesser/theoretically accountable) evil. Indeed, it is hard to be at all angry with - much less punish - "the carnivores who disgrace the society they are charged to protect" (as Ignatieff calls them in his book The Lesser Evil) when what they are doing is protecting us not merely from our political opponents, nor even from our enemies, but from evil itself. Our evil is better - because less bad - than theirs. If Abu Ghraib was wrong, that wrongness consisted not in stepping across the line into evil behaviour, but rather allowing a "necessary evil"

(as framed by intellectuals) to stray into "unnecessary evil" (as practised by the military on the ground). Exactly this kind of human rights language played a part in the invasion of Iraq.

To ensure its survival, the human rights idea needs to stand firmly against this kind of distortion of its essence, this move to turn it into a basis for selective aggression abroad and an alibi for brutality at home. The moment the human rights discourse moves to the realm of good and evil is the moment when it has fatally compromised its integrity. The subject of human rights will not be truly safe until the language of terrorism and, with it, all dangerous talk of good and evil, is removed entirely from political rhetoric and from national and international law, to be replaced with - as far as the first is concerned - a more nuanced approach to international relations and - in relation to the second - a code of law that emphasises the primacy of the criminal model over that of emergency or national security-driven approaches. And for either of these outcomes to be regarded even as possibilities, a just solution must first be found to the political problems in Palestine and Israel.

This is an edited and updated extract from a lecture given at the Oxford Amnesty lectures, sponsored by The Times Higher . Conor Gearty is director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights, London School of Economics.

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