Word for Word: Michael Ignatieff

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(Host) Last week, students and community members gathered at Middlebury College for an address delivered by human rights scholar Michael Ignatieff. Ignatieff is the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and was invited to participate in the college’s symposium on civil liberties and the war on terror.

In his speech, Ignatieff argued that the United States has an obligation to uphold the human rights of terrorists, and that doing so demonstrates the morality of a free society. Today in “Word for Word,” we have an excerpt from Michael Ignatieff’s speech, “The Lesser Evil: Hard Choices in the War on Terror.”

(Ignatieff) “The tactical and strategic goal of terrorism – is to persuade each and every one of you that the strengths of this society -its freedom, its openness, its concern about due process – that these strengths of this society are in fact it’s fatal weakness. The purpose and logic of terrorism is to make you change your mind about your society. To make you think that these strengths are weaknesses and to get rid of them because standing in the way, they’re pesky impediments, they tying the hand of democracy behind its back.

And one of the key battles of will – moral will – is that you keep on believing that what’s strong about this society IS what’s strong about this society. Namely, its concern for due process, its concern for ethical constraint, its concern for its identity as a free and freedom loving society. And so what that means in practice, is we have to in a war on terror the paradox is, we have to discharge moral duties to people who recognize no moral duties to us whatever. The unfortunate reality as a teacher of human rights is, that even terrorists have humans – because they’re human beings, right? They don’t accept us as human beings. We unfortunately, because we’re stuck with who we are, we have to grant them the minimal recognition of them as human beings.

That’s the deal here. We have to hold on to non-reciprocated moral obligation or we cease to be who we think we are. That’s the toughest part of this challenge. Because terrorists want to provoke us. They want to strip off the mask of law; the mask of order; the mask of decency so that we will suddenly reveal the black heart of coercion in side. And our job is very simple: we have to show them, us, the world that it isn’t a mask – that’s who we are. That the rule of law, that freedom, that respect for human rights is absolutely definitional of who they’re up against.”

(Host) Human rights scholar Michael Ignatieff, speaking last week at Middlebury College.

“Word for Word” is an occasional feature of VPR in which we broadcast extended comments by newsmakers. Today’s “Word for Word” was produced by Patti Daniels.

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