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December 12, 2005

Ticking bombs

It's almost impossible to read a defense of U.S. torture without encountering some ticking bomb case (TBC). "Ticking bomb" is a fun parlor game, but it's a total red herring. Arguments about TBC make it sound like U.S. torture policy is one big ticking bomb disposal operation. In fact, while we're arguing about whether it might be permissible to torture someone in an extreme emergency, torture is already routine under much more mundane circumstances.

Ticking bomb arguments are largely irrelevant to policy debates. All they can show is that a single act of torture might be permissible in order to prevent a much, much greater harm. They don't come close to establishing that a policy of torture is morally or practically sound, especially if that policy extends to non-TB cases. (It's ironic that the pro-torture contingent likes TBC so much. The thought experiment doesn't even get off the ground unless you accept that torture is very, very wrong ex ante.)

Torture proponents cite ticking bomb scenarios as if there were an obvious link between these thought experiment and U.S. policy. At best TBC show that individual acts of torture are permissible. It says nothing about the morality of a policy of state-sponsored torture.

In a recent Weekly Standard article Charles Krauthammer tries unsuccessfully to bridge the gap between the TBC and a general policy of torturing our prisoners in the war on terror.

Krauthammer begins by asserting that terror suspects are a special kind of prisoner of war with no rights. He thinks that any suspected terrorist forfeits any right to decent treatment enjoyed by other prisoners of war. He tacitly assumes that every terror suspect in US custody is actually guilty. That's why he thinks it's okay to subject these prisoners to coercive interrogation in order to find out exactly what kind of terrorists they are.

Then he starts in with the ticking bomb scenario. Wouldn't it be okay to torture someone if we could save New York from an atomic bomb? If so, Krauthammer suggests, isn't it also okay to torture really bad people for less urgently actionable intelligence? Critics might argue that torture is always wrong, even against terrorists. Krauthammer uses the TBC to argue that there are at least some circumstances under which torture would be permissible. Once we concede that, Krauthammer thinks, we're bound to agree that it's acceptable to torture someone who actually deserves to be tortured. Who needs a ticking bomb?

Reprehensibly, Krauthammer's essay blurs the distinction between torture as an interrogation tactic and torture as a summary punishment. He seems to thinks we are entitled to use torture to punish suspects before they have been tried or convicted of anything. He says that we are generally too civilized to give the terrorists what they really deserve. However, if they have any information that might be useful to us, we can do whatever we want to them since they deserve it anyway.

Krauthammer fails to make the link between the outcome of the ticking bomb thought experiments and the general permissibility of torture. His argument comes down to the assertion that the mere suspicion of terrorism forfeits all human rights.


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There is nothing, however vile, that Charles Krauthammer will not excuse, as long as it's not being done to him.

He tacitly assumes that every terror suspect in US custody is actually guilty. That's why he thinks it's okay to subject these prisoners to coercive interrogation in order to find out exactly what kind of terrorists they are.

This reminds me of two things: Dick Cheney's smearing of ex-Gitmo complainants by saying, "a lot of these complaints turn out to have come from someone who was incarcerated for terrorism," but failing to point out that--um--the complainants were released for lack of evidence.

The second is Bush's happy dispatching of every Texas death-row inmate that was executed under his governorship, without staying, or seemingly even reading about, the execution of a single one of the over 150 dead men. Who cares?

Our torture is done for only one thing: to intimidate and strike fear into our enemies. Terrorism, really.

whenever i hear or read the 'ticking timebomb' scenario, i walk away, as it's a red herring (and a very ugly one at that). but then again, i find the torture 'debate' inconceivable and am stunned that we've found ourselves, as a country, having gotten to the point where this could possibly be 'debatable'. tragic.

This is another example of why people with left of center political leanings shouldn't engage in irony of any sort, since it seems to form the basis of most right wing political arguments. In this case, the source of Krauthammer's theory seems to be the Simpson's mob episode:
Fat Tony: Bart, um, is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?
Bart: No.
Fat Tony: Well, suppose you got a large starving family. Is it wrong to steal a truckload of bread to feed them?
Bart: Uh uh.
Fat Tony: And, what if your family don't like bread? They like... cigarettes?
Bart: I guess that's okay.
Fat Tony: Now, what if instead of giving them away, you sold them at a price that was practically giving them away. Would that be a crime, Bart?

They say we can't call anyone a Nazi. But there is nothing worse than torture, nothing more Nazi than torture.

I've decided I won't discuss torture. If someone defends torture, I'm through with them. If I had a blog and someone argued a defense of torture, I'd block their IP.

I've read that close to half of Americans approve of torture. So America is half Nazi. Why do I have to live here?

People who subscribe to the "Ticking Bomb Case" demonstrate one unassailable attribute: They watch way too much television. It happened in the movies, so it must work.

No trained interrogator would even consider torture to elicit information on a soon-to-occur event. The information gained would almost invariably be false, the detainee having absolutely nothing to lose.

I have what I think is a simple policy solution to the TBC problem: if you torture someone, you go to prison. But wait--what about the Ticking Bomb? I say, is the situation so dire that you are willing to lose your job and go to prison to fix it? No? Then it's probably not dire enough to torture someone.

I think the TV show "24" has been been really unhelpful to this discourse, because every freaking week Jack has to do something horrible to someone else because they only have a few hours left and this guy they have is their only lead. And I think for a lot of people this has reinforced the TBC from which the slippery slope leads.

And then there's that assumption of guilt thing. It comes up over and over again. There seems to be a segment of the population that thinks that court trials are some kind of game where the point is to prove to everyone else what the cops already Know to be True--that the charged guy actually did it. This is a structural problem, in that you never hear about a DA, after getting a "not guilty" verdict, saying "OK, lets go back over this there someone else we should be looking at?"

"(It's ironic that the pro-torture contingent likes TBC so much. The thought experiment doesn't even get off the ground unless you accept that torture is very, very wrong ex ante.)"

I don't think that's true; I've always read TBC as a simple reductio: "you oppose torture? What if there was a ticking time bomb? a ha, so there are at least some cases when torture is justified!"

that works equally well whether you believe torture is an occasionally necessary evil, an unpleasant but not morally objectionable practice, or (God help you) a generally good idea. Now, I'll admit that if it's a reductio, it should be followed by a debate on where exactly the limits are, and I suspect such a follow-up rarely shows up on, e.g., cable news. But hell, it's already far more sophisticated than the argumentation you usually get from O'Reilly and Rush et al. (in my thankfully limited experience).

Where do these people get the idea that torture works in the first place? From all I have read, it simply doesn't.

Doesn't the whole ticking bomb question assume that torture is actually a good way to get timely quality information from suspects?

Is there any evidence that this is the case?

It seems to me if you were batshit insane enough to, oh I don't know, fly a plane into a building, or in this scenario set off an atomic bomb in the city that you are in, you might just have the intestinal fortitude to lie (or even disasemble) through your teeth until the timer wound down (while W's gestappo worked you over with pliers and blowtorches)?


Naked Ape

Another reason the TBC argument is bogus is that even if torture is strictly illegal - as it is since the US signed the Geneva accords - a true nuclear TBC scenario would rapidly go up the chain of command to the President, who would likely authorize. Seriously, in that scenario, everything is on the table. But as a matter of policy, it is, and should be, illegal.

Naked Ape

(jeez, it feels really odd to play the devil's advocate on this particular question, but there it is)

It's not necessary to think that torture will work in the TBC situation--it's just necessary to think that nothing else will. i.e. if I postulate that there's a nuclear warhead in Manhattan, set to go off in 10 minutes, and I'm interrogating a guy who I think knows where it is, if I put a gun in his face or shoot his kneecap or whatever he may or may not tell me anything, but if I don't, Manhattan is gone.

I guess I might as well put my cards on the table--to me, the TBC is a preposterous red herring, because we all know that if that situation ever comes up, a) the interrogator will do whatever possible to get information, and b) nobody will blame him (for some reason, on this one it's hard not to gender the example, isn't it?), regardless. Whatever policy the US sets on torture, in that one hypothetical case, no one will have time to seek a legal opinion. And I think the more sane of us know with something as close as possible to certainty that the situation will never come up; even the wingnuts don't seem to think it's a serious possibility (hence my reading of the argument as a reductio, in fact).

And of course, none of that has anything whatever to do with the real issue, i.e. should we torture people in Gitmo because we think if we do it to enough people one of them might eventually say something interesting.

Trystero, did you see Jonah Goldberg's latest atrocity, featured in the 12/8 LA Times no less?

He actually says, I kid you not, I'm not twisting his argument, that torture is okay because it works in the movies, which proves that "even liberal Hollywood" realizes that it's morally permissible.

Movie scenarios aside, in the real world, if you knew enough to know you had the guy who had just planted the bomb, you'd almost certainly know enough to know where it was.

In real life, if the guy's handler had a fit of guilty conscience and told you he'd sent out a suicide bomber with a nuclear weapon, and he could id the guy but didn't know where the bomber had left the bomb, in the movies our hero would torture the bomber but a much faster & more efficient way to actually get the info would be to have the handler call the bomber on his cell phone & ask where it was.

Movies are designed to create dramatic tension. I don't think our actual security forces should be designed to do that.

on this one it's hard not to gender the example, isn't it?

It is. But then again, we live in a post Lyndie England world,

Where do these people get the idea that torture works in the first place? From all I have read, it simply doesn't.

On Kantian grounds, I'm sceptical about the possibility of moral luck so I guess we can't say that just because it doesn't work, that doesn't mean that torture's wrong, right?

I miss the old days when people would say that the reductio of consequentialism was that is could be used to justify torture. Who would have thought we'd have to trade that in for saying the trouble with consequentialism is that it justifies mercy?

Dan said:

It's not necessary to think that torture will work in the TBC situation--it's just necessary to think that nothing else will. i.e. if I postulate that there's a nuclear warhead in Manhattan, set to go off in 10 minutes, and I'm interrogating a guy who I think knows where it is, if I put a gun in his face or shoot his kneecap or whatever he may or may not tell me anything, but if I don't, Manhattan is gone

Yes, it sounds like a very suspenseful movie, but if your mission is to die and to take out as many of the others as you can, how effective do you think torture would be on you?

I can't really believe that you are suggesting that in that scenario, would you console/amuse yourself in your last ten minutes by shooting off your captive's fingers, toes, wrists, ankles, elbows and kneecaps. If you aren't jusp playing devils advocate, have fun, but try not to nick the femoral artery, of your suspect won't last ten minutes. BTW, manhatten is still goes poof and so do the two of you, assuming your charge is still alive when the other charge goes off.

Let's all meditate on the wisdom of Mr. White.

Listen kid, I'm not gonna bullshit you, allright? I don't give a good fuck what you know, or don't know, but I'm gonna torture you anyway, regardless. Not to get information. It's amusing, to me, to torture a cop. You can say anything you want cause I've heard it all before. All you can do is pray for a quick death, which you ain't gonna get.

Torture doesn't work. Period. It's always just for the amusement of the torturer, no matter what the torturers say.


Naked Ape

Of course, it is a feature of the TBC argument is that it's useful for justifying anything at all (therefore, justifying everything). Anything that's wrong/illegal/immoral/evil can be shown to be useful in a series of regressively idiotic thought experiments designed to show their exceptional usefulness.

p.s. i don't know what 24's ratings are, but i'm betting they're around 10-12, which means 10-12 million households tuning in. not quite enough to account for half the country going/being pro-torture. i suspect it has more to do with how the question is put to people (i.e. the dopey TBC), the scanty amount of thought joe six-pack gives to this "debate," joe's unexamined prejudices, etc...

my favorite version of the ticking bomb thought experiment is the short story "Last Pennant Before Armageddon" by WP Kinsella. In the story, the Chicago Cubs are on a historic streak and the manager of the Cubs is having recurring nightmares that the cubs win it all and the world blows up. His dilemma: should he intentionally lose to save the world, or fuck the world and go for the first cubs championship since 1908?

TV: I refused for a looong time to watch NYPD Blue, because it annoyed me so much that Andy Sipowicz was constantly snarling about giving someone a "toon-up" (I want to watch this grating, grousing asshole?), and imagining the TV audience sniggering along, "huh-huh-huh!"

Since the only place the logic of this argument works is in the movies, why not turn to the movies for the answer? The bomb is in Chester A. Arthur Elementary.

I discovered Arthur Silbers 5 part series on torture and think he does a fabulous job demonstrating how epistemologically flawed the Ticking Bomb scenario is.

He raises the point that it is highly unlikely that we would find ourselves in possession of the knowledge that a bomb would go off in a specific location at a specific time, without already knowing how to deal with it, etc.

Most real life scenarios aren't these dramatic and we are less likely to know many details about impending doom.

Where is the recognition that something is morally wrong when it is socially dysfunctional ? Incest , murder, rape are all molestations of varying degree causing harm. Basically people aren't permitted to cause physical damage to each other. Using technique that violates this principle and is assessed by those knowledgable about it to be unproductive is indefensable. That's why it comes under international ban. The promoting factor for its use is intimidation. That is something that provokes the "fight or flight" response : not something to be played with lightly. The results can be messy, especially since group dynamics tend to be provoked. Somebody isn't paying attention to "What goes around, comes around".

Ticking bomb? How broadcast TV, Lindsay.

How about this scenario:

A terrorist has me captive and convinced that unless I rape and murder a 10 year old girl and eat her liver, he will kill millions (he's a pervert and terrorist) with a nuke in Manhattan.

Do I let millions die, or do I pull a Jack Bauer, and take the moral hit for my country and do as he says.

In this day and age we must not tie the President's hands. If rape, murder, and cannibalism are needed to save civilization, we must make it legal for the President to do.

Of course John Derbyshire would have George W. Bush decide if there was a bomb and if it were ticking.

Torture on, dude.

Although impossible to occur in the way John Derbyshire's imagination has it, if such a scenario were to occur the answer is that what needs to be done should be done by those responsible, in order to save humanity, but that person will be morally tainted forever. No forgiveness, or excuses on Derbyshire's part will ease his mind. And we should make it neither legal nor speak of it as if it weren't morally reprehensible.

It won't happen, turn off your TV, John, and go rake some leaves.

Ah, Derbyshire and Krauthammer, the Laurel and Hardy of the torture debate.

Look, those two morons couldn't get good intel from a phone book. They're certainly *NOT* trained interrogators, and they have no actual knowledge of what interrogators do. They're pulling this shit out of thier asses, and half of America is bamboozled by them.

How many peole here have asked actual armed forces interrogators if torture works? Do you think Derb or Krauthanner did? HELL NO! Because almost every interrogator trained by the US Armed forces *knows* torture is innefective for getting real intel. Thier compatriots *die* if someone gets bad intel, and more often than not, torture produces bad intel, it taints future interrogations, and it wrecks the trust anyone who might be in contact with the torture victim afterwards.

No soldier wants to risk lives based on bad intel. Torture produces (on the whole) bad intel.

The pro-torture right will inevitably come up with a few cases where torture worked. They'll hope you missed the half of his speech in which he told people he gave false intel mixed in with true stuff, and cite John McCain as someone who torture worked on. This is because they're fucking liars.

*Sometimes* torture works. Also, sometimes, if you've got engine trouble, a working solution might be to hit your car's engine with a baseball bat.

So, by denying the president the right to torture, we're denying him the right to the equivelant of hitting a car engine with a baseball bat to fix it.

Now, ask yourself who's really torturing out there. It turns out it's Federal TLA agencies like the CIA. Well, The CIA has no troops on the ground. The CIA didn't invade Iraq. The CIA is not risking hundreds of lives of young men and women every time bad intel gets out. They don't care if it's 70% bad intel. All they care is that it supports what they want to do.

a Kinsley article on the same subject came out today; worth a look.

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