Torture and the Ticking Time Bomb
Nice essay on the idiocy of the "ticking time bomb" theory of torture:
So let us imagine ourselves in the interrogation room with the suspect. Evidence collected from his apartment certainly seems to indicate that he has knowledge of a looming terrorist attack, but he is begging for mercy. Too bad, isn't it? All we have done is deprive him of sleep and clothing. And it is a bit cold. Unfortunately, he may be scared and cold, but he hasn't given us one scrap of useful information. And we're under some time pressure. Your superior has an idea. For better cover, the suspect was living with his family, a wife and young daughter. We're detaining them in another room. The evidence seems to show the suspect cares for them. Perhaps if we brought them into the room? Your superior warns you to steel yourself for what comes next. Perhaps the suspect will respond to mere threats that they might be put to death in front of him. If threats are not enough, however, we must be prepared to do the worst. Of course, in some cultures there are acts regarded as worse than death. Your superior looks at you. Do you understand what he is talking about? Of course you do. You are experienced in the ways of the TTB, of doing what is necessary to elicit information under the terrible pressure of a deadline.
I really hope I don't have to elaborate further this fantastic scenario of moral corruption. Our popular culture is full of faux scenarios of torture and cruelty. Just check out your local video rental store. What's amazing about the TTB is that it is taken to be "real," a serious matter for public debate. But it's no more real than my scenario, a Tom Clancy novel of military adventure or a superhero comic.
The TTB counts on eliciting a certain sort of response. Of course, "the president would have to authorize torture" to prevent millions from dying. But surely it puts a slightly different spin on the situation to imagine that you are the one responsible for making sure the interrogation is effective. And you will have to live with the consequences if you turn out to be wrong. What wouldn't you do to prevent millions from dying? Well, I wouldn't engage in torture, child abuse, murder, rape and a whole long list of morally corrupt acts. And I'm willing to bet you wouldn't either. Scenarios like the TTB are well designed to cloud our reason and judgment. For that reason, we should avoid them and concentrate on the ways in which we can realistically prevent terrorist attacks.
I almost forgot. After you finish following orders and torturing the suspect, it turns out he really didn't know anything. That's the way almost all of these scenarios end, isn't it?
Posted on October 12, 2006 at 2:09 PM • 66 Comments