The Liberals Finally Have Their King: Here’s Hoping He Never Becomes Our King

Posted on May 4, 2009

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Michael Ignatieff was finally coronated leader of the Federal Liberal Party this weekend. Let’s hope that Mr. Ignatieff, and the backroom boys that orchestrated his coronation, never end up running the Federal Government. I say this because all indications are that Mr. Ignatieff is an intellectual yes-man, especially for the guys with the guns.  

To illustrate this point, consider his discussion of torture which seems motivated by a desire to excuse those who engage in torture or defend its practice. Mr. Ignatieff claims he supports an “absolute and unconditional ban on torture” but he also thinks a person who tortures in “good-faith” because he or she thinks it will save lives should be charged, tried, but not necessarily fully punished. For his remarks, click here.

First off, it must be noted that Mr. Ignatieff is creating the illusion of debate when there is in fact no debate. Torture is always wrong and always an ineffective way to gather information. The tortured have no interest in providing reliable information; their only interest is to provide whatever information will stop the torture and in some cases — many cases even — providing reliable information will not stop the torture and providing false information will.  

This is why authoritarian regimes like torture. The tortured will say whatever he or she thinks the torturer wants to hear whether it is true or not. So, even in the cartoonish Die Hard scenario, Ignatieff imagines (if I don’t torture now, people will die very soon), in all likelihood the torturer will receive unreliable information. The only people who don’t believe this are the interrogators who, for whatever reason, want to engage in these reprehensible practices. 

And this is precisely the reason why Mr. Ignatieff thinks torture is a reliable source of information and why he goes to great lengths to make the practice seem less dubious — because interrogators who employ torture say so! He writes:

While some abuse and outright torture can be attributed to individual sadism, poor supervision and so on, it must be the case that other acts of torture occur because interrogators believe, in good faith, that torture is the only way to extract information in a timely fashion. It must also be the case that if experienced interrogators come to this conclusion, they do so on the basis of experience. The argument that torture and coercion do not work is contradicted by the dire frequency with which both practices occur. 

In other words, if the snake oil salesman really believes the snake oil works, we have every reason to believe him because there are so many other snake oil salesmen who really believe it works. Not only are these remarks a textbook example of very poor and fallacious reasoning, to my mind, they are indicative of a character unfit for political leadership.

One of the most important functions of an elected and civilian political leader is to act as a check and balance against those in society who are rightfully and legitimately charged with the task of exercising force on our behalf when necessary. For the time being, society needs fighters, warriors, etc., but there is no reason to think the methods employed or recommended by these folks are always correct or even the best options available. In fact, there is every reason to believe that these folks are so caught up in the day-to-day challenges of violent conflict that they are less able to reason clearly on what counts as best practice.

There is, in other words, no reason to assume that interrogators who employ torture are doing so because it really is the most effective way to gather information in a short amount of time. The only reason, it seems to me, that a person would assume interrogators are correct about this, given the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, is if that person has a de facto tendency to defer to the authority of the people who administer coercive force in society. 

And this is what concerns me. I suspect, and Mr. Ignatieff’s record tends to support this view, that he has just such a tendency and will go to great lengths to justify the decisions of the guys with the guns. His discussion of torture, his support for the Iraq invasion, and his stance on the Balkan conflict seems to me to support this claim. If the boys with bombs want to drop them, Mr. Ignatieff’s record indicates he can be counted-on to come up with a cover story for them to do so. 

And that is a disturbing record for someone who aspires to lead our country after having lived away from it for much of his life. And I suspect it is also the reason why the back room boys are so eager to have him in charge. A well-spoken intellectual who serves authority rather than challenges it will certainly make a fine mouthpiece and good cover for business as usual.

For more of my social and political commentary, click here.