Does Michael Ignatieff condone torture?

If Michael Ignatieff is a ninny, he is a strange kind of tyrannical ninny. At least insofar as his critics persist in repeating two points about him: (1) He endorsed the war in Iraq, and (2) He condones torture.

The first is indisputable, and Mr. Ignatieff has made great and public effort to explain himself in that regard.

The second has always seem a little less straightforward, but if it is to persist as an issue, we might as well try to make sense of it. If only so I can figure out what to think.

As was argued in a profile of him two-and-a-half years ago, “the problem for Ignatieff is he openly debates himself in public.” And so it becomes fairly easy to find a quote of his that appears to justify, or at least defend, the use of torture.

I’m not yet all the way through The Lesser Evil, Ignatieff’s primary text on the subject, but the first result of a basic Google search (“Michael Ignatieff” + “torture”) is this essay, written in 2006 for Prospect magazine. A Conservative blogger recently used an excerpt from this piece to argue that Ignatieff does, or did, support “coercive interrogation” (a heinous phrase that is often used to describe acts that are nothing less than torture).

That essay does, though, include the following paragraph.

So I end up supporting an absolute and unconditional ban on both torture and those forms of coercive interrogation that involve stress and duress, and I believe that enforcement of such a ban should be up to the military justice system plus the federal courts. I also believe that the training of interrogators can be improved by executive order and that the training must rigorously exclude stress and duress methods. 

That, to me, seems fairly unequivocal. Of course, Ignatieff—not being one of those tough guys—follows that with another thousand words considering the potential failings of his conclusion. And it is from that discussion that the aforementioned blogger—as interested partisans have and will—quoted Ignatieff. Specifically, he grabbed this passage.

As Posner and others have tartly pointed out, if torture and coercion are both as useless as critics pretend, why are they used so much? 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. I submit that we would not be “waterboarding” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—immersing him in water until he experiences the torment of nearly drowning—if our intelligence operatives did not believe it was necessary to crack open the al Qaeda network that he commanded. Indeed, Mark Bowden points to a Time report in March 2003 that Sheikh Mohammed had “given US interrogators the names and descriptions of about a dozen key al Qaeda operatives believed to be plotting terrorist attacks.” We must at least entertain the possibility that the operatives working on Sheikh Mohammed in our name are engaging not in gratuitous sadism but in the genuine belief that this form of torture—and it does qualify as such—makes all the difference. 

That, on its own, seems rather Cheneyesque. But then Ignatieff uses several of the preceding sentences to refute the argument that torture is “necessary.” And he spends two of the subsequent paragraphs explaining his aforementioned “absolute and unconditional ban.”

For what it’s worth, Ignatieff’s concluding paragraph is as follows.

We cannot torture, in other words, because of who we are. This is the best I can do, but those of us who believe this had better admit that many of our fellow citizens are bound to disagree. It is in the nature of democracy itself that fellow citizens will define their identity in ways that privilege security over liberty and thus reluctantly endorse torture in their name. If we are against torture, we are committed to arguing with our fellow citizens, not treating those who defend torture as moral monsters. Those of us who oppose torture should also be honest enough to admit that we may have to pay a price for our own convictions. Ex ante, of course, I cannot tell how high this price might be. Ex post—following another terrorist attack that might have been prevented through the exercise of coercive interrogation—the price of my scruple might simply seem too high. This is a risk I am prepared to take, but frankly, a majority of fellow citizens is unlikely to concur. 

So does Michael Ignatieff condone torture? Does he condone waterboarding or stress positions or the use of dogs or the so-called “frequent flyer” program or any other of Dick Cheney’s little fantasies? From my reading—while remaining open to being convinced otherwise—I’d say no. 

If so, the endurance of the accusation that he does actually becomes an even trickier issue to decipher. Is it a failing of his writing? Is it a failing of his political sensibility? Is it a failing of his critics? Or a failing of our politics to identify the “truth?”