Lunchtime Debate with Michael Ignatieff: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror

_DSC0187 - Christophe KetelsThe Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts in Brussels proved a majestic background for a High Level Lunch with Mr Michael Ignatieff on Friday May 15th. The Flemish liberal party Open Vld and the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung für die Freiheit enjoyed the support of the European Liberal Forum (ELF) in organising this event with the Canadian intellectual and former politician.

Ignatieff was in Brussels to talk about his acclaimed work The Lesser Evil. Political Ethics in an Age of Terror. (2004, Princeton University Press) The lesser evil position holds that in a terrorist emergency, a democracy is committed to both the security of the majority and the rights of the individual. With the recent terrorist attacks in Europe and the IS menace in the Middle East in mind, this book – written amidst the “War on Terror” of George W. Bush – still could and should serve as a moral compass to liberal politicians dealing with terrorism.

_DSC0127 - Christophe KetelsMrs Gwendolyn Rutten, chairwoman of Open Vld, and Mrs Susanne Hartig, President of ELF, welcomed 65 participants in the Marble Hall of what used to be the palace of Dutch Crown Prince Willem I. Amongst the invitees: Vice Prime Minister in the Belgian federal government, Mr Alexander De Croo, Flemish Secretary of Culture, Media, Youth and Brussels, Mr Sven Gatz, several members of the Belgian and European academic circuit, administrators of the European Commission, Members of the European Parliament, and representatives of member states of the EU.

Mr Ignatieff began his keynote by stressing that the multicultural liberal projects of the West remain the best antidote for confused youngsters against the Sirens’ Song of what he coins “the virtual caliphate”. Promoting our values to immigrants looking for a better life in Europe or North America is always a better choice than undermining these values ourselves in the name of security.

“If you look at the names of people who engaged in terrorist attacks over the last 15 years, we must _DSC0225 - Christophe Ketelsalways remember two things. First, these people are now dead, and two, we knew who they were before they committed those crimes. So our police and security services are doing a pretty good job. By which I mean: they don’t need more powers. And if they grant them more powers, for instance to enable them to intervene sooner, let these measures always be of temporary nature and above all, let them be checked by the legislative and judicial powers”, said Ignatieff to reinforce the lesser evil position.

_DSC0285 - Christophe Ketels Vice-President of the ALDE bureau and MEP Mrs Sophie in ’t Veld took the floor for a response from the European liberal point of view. Although she agreed with the core of Ignatieffs speech, in ’t Veld was more critical in her analysis of the liberal position on terrorism since 9/11. Liberty has been traded off for security – not even the kind of security we truly aimed for, she concluded. These two powerful speeches were followed by what was both an extensive and intensive Q&A.

Aubry Cornelis

Photos: Aubry Cornelis/Open VLD