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 PM66 Comments


Anonymous October 12, 2006 2:39 PM

it turns out he really didn’t know anything. <<<

He knows one thing, his wife and daughter are dead. He also knows who is responsible. Now what do you think he’ll do with that information?

Kerry October 12, 2006 2:47 PM

I’m willing to bet most people would torture the subject, probably to the extent of injuring or even killing the wife and children. Context is everything and if you, as the interrogator, become convinced that the subject and his family are inconsequential to the better good then you would probably do it.

The Milgram experiment is a famous case, anyone who thinks they could not be coerced to perform such awful acts of torture needs to read this.

Chuck October 12, 2006 2:52 PM

There is a ticking time bomb. Rather than giving you a complete bullshit story that can’t be falsified before the bomb goes off, the torture victem tells you where it is. Unfortunately, he forgets to tell you that it has motion sensors and a variety of photodiodes for detecting x-rays.


If I were to build a big, expensive time bomb, it would probably have countermeasures against motion and observation. Here is one such countermeasure. A person would have 10 seconds after entering the room holding the bomb to type 1234 on the bomb’s keypad. If the person types 4321 or fails to enter data within 10 seconds it goes off.

Al October 12, 2006 2:58 PM

Who says the President can order torture?

All the laws and legal principles I’m aware of say you’re obliged to IGNORE ILLEGAL ORDERS.

Since torture is illegal under the Geneva Conventions and a host of domestic laws, including that Bill of Rights thing, ignoring the President’s order to conduct torture should be the obligation of every citizen or soldier.

If you want to argue about the corruption of these moral and legal obligations, then that’s a different argument. But what one OUGHT to do should not be in question.

The moral and legal obligations are clear. Whether one follows them is a different question: degree of complicity. See the book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”.

bob October 12, 2006 3:05 PM

What if the terrorist’s “wife and daughter” were innocents kidnapped for the purpose of supporting a cover story? Now you have tortured/killed innocents, bothered the terrorist not at all (other than taxing his ability to keep from grinning) and still learned nothing.

Plus, how many people would not make something up in order to stop torture? How useful is that going to be?

@Al: Not only are you obliged to ignore illegal orders; the US government has executed people for obeying orders which were legal, but “morally wrong”.

CP October 12, 2006 3:08 PM

What if you disobey orders and refuse to engage in torture, but it turns out that the guy really did know something that would have stopped thousands of deaths? Don’t you have to consider that side of the coin as well?

Anonymous October 12, 2006 3:16 PM

What if the prisoner and his wife are willing to become martyrs for their cause? What if their cause says martyrdom of innocents (their daughter) is the most noble act?

Then exactly what can the torturer expect to gain?

The most likely outcome I can see is false information extracted under torture. So the ticking time bomb still explodes, thousands of innocents die, AND you’ve got some serious moral corruption on your hands. In Prisoner’s Dillemma game-theory terms, that’s the worst of all possible outcomes.

Anonymous October 12, 2006 3:18 PM

Wow, some of the comments at the original article are really good. They are worth reading every bit as much as the article itself.

TOMBOT October 12, 2006 3:20 PM

“What if you disobey orders and refuse to engage in torture, but it turns out that the guy really did know something that would have stopped thousands of deaths? Don’t you have to consider that side of the coin as well?”

Did you read the article?

Tamas October 12, 2006 3:21 PM

The TTB is a movie plot scenario. Yes, it is easy to make up situations where you have to sacrifice moral principles to save humanity etc. In real life, however, such situations are so rare that giving up the entire framework of legal guarantees, checks and balances is just not worth the alleged benefit.

An insight from decision theory: sometimes, minimax decisions are inadmissible under any prior.

TOMBOT October 12, 2006 3:24 PM

There is no “that side of the coin.” This is a false dilemma. Information obtained under duress as described is pretty reliably false or otherwise useless. There is no such thing as actionable intelligence from torture. Period.

K. Signal Eingang October 12, 2006 3:37 PM

The last line in the essay is really the crux of the argument, to me. The TTB scenario requires a failure of intelligence. For it to occur, the interrogator would necessarily be in the dark — uncertain where the time bomb is, how to stop it, how it got there, who’s responsible, or if there’s even really a bomb at all. After all, if the interrogater knew all or any of the above, there’d be little need to resort to torture – you could just evacuate the area or rely on ordinary detective work to save those lives.

And just like that scene in Marathon Man, you’ll find quickly that once you engage in torture, it becomes impossible to know whether or not you’re getting good information. I won’t say “torture doesn’t work” in the strictest sense – I’m pretty sure if I knew where the diamonds were, I’d give up the info pretty quick to keep whatever’s left of my teeth. But practically, it doesn’t. Innocent prisoners will confess, disciplined terrorists will hold out as long as they can (and it is a ticking time bomb after all, so they know they don’t have to hold out forever, which in itself is going to render torture less effective).

It’s a ridiculously shallow and naïve scenario, and it has no place in a serious debate.

Suomynona October 12, 2006 4:04 PM

along with the Milgram experiment, you should read this:

“The experiment’s result has been argued to demonstrate the impressionability and obedience of people when provided with a legitimizing ideology and social and institutional support. It is also used to illustrate cognitive dissonance theory and the power of authority.

In psychology, the results of the experiment are said to support situational attributions of behavior rather than dispositional attribution. In other words, it seemed to entail that the situation caused the participants’ behavior rather than anything inherent in their individual personalities”

gnome October 12, 2006 4:17 PM

The poor, tortured Gitmo detainees. They’re being tortured into gaining 18 pounds apiece. I’d bet the African refugees would welcome that kind of torture.

Aborted October 12, 2006 4:21 PM

This will hurt your feelings, and that’s intentional. No apologies.

That there is such a discussion about the TTB is because minions, sheep, lamers i.e. the regular voters – you and me -, don’t know how the fuck the world operates. You need your proper little procedures and safety nets, without them you can’t function, because you are incapable of really taking your life in your hands, taking responsibility and being held accountable for your actions.

So you’re stuck thinking, that if you consider an action to be useful, that there must be a law allowing it. WRONG… WRONG.

In a situation like this it is a very good thing that torture is highly illegal. In this current legal scenario it’s the matter of judgement on the part of the inquisitor and him solely. Is he convinced that breaking the law and performing torture would save 10000 peoples lives ? A good man will do the right thing.

If he indeed saves 10000 lives, I would like to see a place on this earth, where that inquisitor would be tried. Noone wants to see him tried. It’s a non-scandal szenario. It’d be most likely be covered up. But if he fucks up, then you have potentially a big scandal and he is hopefully justly tried. So the incentive to torture is EXTREMELY low and that is VERY good.

If you have a “proper” procedure for torture, now suddenly all the fools, cowards and joe shmoes are gonna start torturing, if they can fit their case to the law. And they will try! There is obviously going to be much more torture, making the world a worse place.

The reason that these scenarios are posited to you fools, is because the political powers want to torture more and more conveniently. That you are discussing the TTB scenario means, that you have already fallen into their trap. The TTB szenario is just some bullshit to warp your minds, it’s not what the true political intentions are at all.

Sparohok October 12, 2006 4:25 PM

Even if we suppose that the ticking time bomb scenario is plausible, and that torture would be justified under some such extraordinary circumstance, we still shouldn’t modify our laws to accomodate those circumstances.

For almost any given law, there are some highly unlikely scenarios where a moral person could or even should violate the law. And in fact, very rarely, such scenarios do occur. That is why we have a justice system that involves human judgement and mercy. That is why juries can and do nullify law. That is why judges must have discretion over sentencing. The solution is to trust the justice system to take truly extraordinary circumstances into account, rather than to change laws to accomodate all possible circumstances.

Take a comparatively common example. You are driving a critically injured person to the hospital. You are willing to violate all sorts of traffic laws in order to get that person to the hospital. You judge that the moral consequences of failing to break the law are worse than the personal consequences of breaking the law. You trust that the criminal justice system will take your side. And in fact, it almost certainly will take your side.

Suppose we argue that traffic laws should be relaxed to accomodate all possible scenarios of this sort. The result would be an intractably complex maze of exceptions and caveats. People who must act in haste would be unlikely to fully understand the legal consequences of their actions and would not have time to research them. They would still be forced to override their fear of prosecution in order to do what is right. In contrast, the only people who would really benefit from such a maze of exceptions are those with criminal intent who have time to study the laws in detail, find loopholes, and exploit them.

I believe the ticking time bomb scenario is a perfect example where I would want any would-be torturer to be restrained by the knowledge that they must break the law. In a situation so absolutely clear cut, so extraordinary, and so compelling that a reasonable person would be willing to commit felony violations, confident that a jury of their peers will be willing to nullify that law in their favor, perhaps torture is justified. In any lesser circumstance, do we as a society want to legally condone torture? Personally, I believe not. As a result, addressing the TTB scenario in our laws is unnecessary and indeed unwise, even if we consider such scenarios to be feasible.

Lee October 12, 2006 4:38 PM

What if you’re in an episode of 24, even if they do know they will die by accident before they can explain the whole plan.

Roy October 12, 2006 4:42 PM

Every soldier has the right, and the duty, to arrest a superior officer giving an illegal order. He also has a gun: that’s to coerce submission to the rule of law.

rmd October 12, 2006 4:46 PM

If I personally were in a TTB scenario? I might do something atrocious — I doubt if I’m as immune to coercion of authority as I’d like to think I am. But I like to think I would then turn myself in for assault/murder/whatever, because I just committed a crime.

Rob Mayfield October 12, 2006 5:38 PM

Unfortunately the belief ‘the end justifies the means’ is widely held, including it seems by the Australian Attorney-General Philip Ruddock.,23599,20506913-2,00.html

“The point the United States has made is that it will not use torture and those instructions have been given to their agencies and that may well limit the capacity of intelligence organisations in the future,” Mr Ruddock told ABC TV.

Sleep deprivation, Mr Ruddock said, was not torture.

“I don’t regard sleep deprivation as torture. I’ve not heard it being put in that way,” he said.

This from the longest serving member of the Australian Federal Parliament (and quite possibly the member most out of touch with reality) who championed the erosion of human rights in Australia with the so called Anti-Terrorism Bill. That, together with this kind of inane and legalistic attempt to define rigid yet baseless boundaries solely to support a desired position or outcome should be transparent enough for everyone to see it for what it really is. What next ? its not torture unless its result is death in custody ?

Of course his statement on the US position is laughable also, unless you substitute “it will not use torture” with “it will not admit to using torture” …

With ‘leadership’ like this, the current state of affairs is no surprise.

Phila October 12, 2006 5:54 PM

This has been driving me nuts forever. No one’s going to use a “ticking time bomb” in this day and age. You can set bombs off with cellphones, and have one or more failsafe systems to ensure that it detonates (ahead of schedule, if necessary), or use a dead man’s trigger, or God knows what else.

The only reason this scenario is floated, IMO, is because it’s familiar from movies and TV and therefore has misleading vividness going for it. If terrorists ever seriously considered a “ticking time bomb,” I’m sure they’re over the idea by now.

not-the-information-minister October 12, 2006 6:03 PM


Philip Ruddock, the hypocrite, is a member of Amnesty International, believe it or not. They forced him to stop wearing his badge back in 2000, when he was immigration minister. Nevertheless I remember him stating on television interviews well after that time, that as head of the parliamentary chapter of Amnesty International he would never, ever, do anything that would violate the human rights of refugees. I imagine his position was something like (paraphrased) “I don’t regard mandatory detention of asylum seekers as a human rights violation. I’ve not heard it being put that way.”

RonK October 12, 2006 6:11 PM

@ Sparohok

Wow. Your post was so “right on the mark” that I just can’t restrain myself from commenting that it was.

Even though I know I’m probably wasting bandwidth by doing it.

stew October 12, 2006 7:11 PM

This thing reminds me of a recent case in germany:

Short version:
Kidnapper jails child somewhere
Kidnapper gets caught but won’t tell location
Police fears child might die if kidnapper doesn’t confess fast enough

The police chief finally threatened him with torture. The suspect finally caved in and led the police to the hiding place, but the boy was already dead.
In the aftermath the police chief had to resign.

I think this is a pretty much real life example of a TTB. Sadly in reality the chances are obviously higher that the time runs out before the suspect confesses.

Rob Mayfield October 12, 2006 9:12 PM

@not-the-information-minister – I wasnt aware of that, but it doesnt surprise me at all.

‘the onion’ has a recent article on interrogation limits – I’m sure if similar amperage restrictions were discussed here that Mr Ruddock would be vehemently against them (humour warning):

“Senate Wins Fight To Lower Allowable Amperage Levels On Detainees’ Testicles”

Andrew October 12, 2006 9:18 PM

If torture is really necessary to save lives, certainly the law enforcement personnel will be cheerfully willing to give up their careers — AND THEIR PENSIONS — to save so many lives, right?


This isn’t the slippery slope. This is the fire of the pit itself.

Torture is wrong. Not just wrong, evil. We as a people do not empower our public servants to do that which is evil.

Torture is also ineffective and stupid. Seduction works much better, and can actually break a hard case much more effectively. (Real torment lies in inducing the victim to do it to themselves, after all, and sin is a great way to provoke confession. See the Catholic Church for details.)

I can see the advertisement now — “Sex workers needed! Middle Eastern languages a BIG plus! Must be willing to tolerate stroking terrorist egos, and other things, in service to your country.”

Sparohok October 12, 2006 11:36 PM


Trust me, I know all about mandatory minimums. Personal direct experience. I am not a fan.

I guess I am making an argument about how our laws should be, not about how they are. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Mandatory minimums are wrong, but that doesn’t mean we should add other mistakes to our legal code in order to compensate for them. In fact, my argument could be considered yet another reason why mandatory minimums are flawed.

@RonK: thanks!!

Davi Ottenheimer October 13, 2006 3:22 AM

@ Sparohok

I agree. Excellent points. It seems the US President’s relaxed interpretation of the Geneva convention (billed as “clarifying” the definition of torture) has everything to do with the politics of avoiding trial for war crimes and nothing to do with the actual security of the nation.

Moreover, rushing to conclusions without clear evidence of an actual TTB is a terrible mistake, often rooted in irrational fear of an amateur in the heat of the moment. A professional typically knows to do an efficient yet thorough risk assessment first before engaging extra-ordinary efforts (thus, their “professional” status), as you rightly suggest.

To me the real problem seems rooted in the fact that professional opinions are being dismissed because of pride, greed, or partisan or bureaucratic inefficiencies in government. The Post article cited above gives good insight into this problem, and then there are the other infamous examples:

This is simply bad management, and if anything the laws should prevent management from shirking their accountability. Shame on Bush and Cheney for trying to shift the blame again, this time to the Geneva convention. That’s like Enron blaming the accounting rules for their collapse. It is really leadership ability and accountability that is in question here. Too bad they aren’t able to own up to their mistakes and tragic that they keep making the same ones.

On that note, I still cringe when I read Bush’s comments in 2003…

“[WMD] Inspection teams do not need more time or more personnel. All they need is what they have never received, the full cooperation of the Iraqi regime. Token gestures are not acceptable. […] Our mission is clear in Iraq. Should we have to go in, our mission is very clear: disarmament.”


In context of a TTB, Bush’s words seem to suggest his policy has been “say what we tell you to say, exactly how we tell you to say it, so we know you are saying exactly what we want to hear. There is no time left for discussion. We know the facts and we just need you to confirm [where the WMDs/terrorists are].”

Aside from the comments already made about false information extracted under duress, an old saying “fire, ready, aim” comes to mind…

vwm October 13, 2006 4:01 AM

I think it is worth mentioning some more information about the German Case introduced by stew.

The Kidnapper confessed his crime long before torture was threatened. He said that the victim (Jakob von Metzler) was still alive — that was a lie — but refused to tell the location.

Precautions had been taken, so that the threat of torture would not invalid the confession of the kidnapper (c.f. Fruit of the poisonous tree): Before they started to thread the suspect, the official interrogation was closed and the suspect was informed, that nothing he would tell from that point on could be used against him.

The (deputy) Chief of Police (Wolfgang Daschner) took full personal responsibility, kept the prosecutor informed and indicted himself afterwards. He got away with the minimum penalty. I believe, his self-indictment and the resulting conviction both are independent from the fact, that his actions did not save the life of the child.

bob October 13, 2006 6:59 AM

@Sparohok: Your post is missing a significant point. In your traffic analogy, you decide to break the law and risk the legal consequences because the benefit is greater. However to be a valid analogy you would need to add the likelihood that once you speed (participate in torture) you get a 50% (no clue what the ratio is, pick your favorite, I’m betting 30-70%) chance of dropping your patient off at Wal-Mart instead of the hospital (ie getting false information in order to stop the torture).

I know if you tortured me to get terrorist info you would get about 3 “I dont know what you’re talking about!”s; then the most realistic compendium of NCIS episodes and Tom Clancy novels that I could brew up to make you stop.

the other Greg October 13, 2006 8:13 AM

There are anecdotes of torturers, kids in Vietnam for example, in the heat of the moment stepping over the line. And of others who stepped back, trying to convince themselves that they weren’t involved.

The have their own kinds of PTSDs.

And if the neighbours find out… The kids next door suddenly have too much homework. The mayor presents the key to the village, but he doesn’t seem to be able to say exactly what it is you did; he turns away quickly, unconsciously washing his hands. The guy at the cornerstore throws change in your hand without looking without touching. Your minister is loudly jovial and there is always a space around your pew, even at Christmas. They are officially real grateful but they don’t know how a human being could do that.

In the torture chamber, as the Chamber of Commerce, those who get results rise to the top. In this case, they are psychopaths.

The Ticking Time Bomb is not just moral theater, it is political theater. You and I won’t be there : we are too squeamish. And if there really were a TTB, and you a psycho, your superior would never ask you to do your worst, he would be there, hands-on, supervising you doing his worst.

These scenarios are not designed to convince you to approve “aggressive interrogation techniques”. They are designed to push you over the line where you refuse to imagine the consequences… to trick you into approving somebody else do it, without thinking about what ‘it’ is.

JHD October 13, 2006 9:38 AM

The driving to the hospital example is a good one. One may break the traffic laws to get an injured person to the hospital, but one may not do anything at all one thinks necessary; one must act within the bounds of reason. Observe ambulance drivers: they drive (normally) with real caution, breaking lights when safe to do so and usually observing the speed limit (long distance transport before helicopters being an exception). The license accorded the necessity defense is not that great.

If I torture someone to defuse the TTB the system has several checkpoints (I shall disregard simple secrecy and concealment): First, prosecutorial discretion, the authority of a prosecutor to refuse to prosecute me; second, jury nullification, the authority of the jury to find me not guilty despite my factual guilt, and thirdly the pardon power of the executive. In some jurisdictions a judge may also set aside the conviction, but the first three are everywhere in our system.

None of these depend on my being correct to torture or successful in defusing the TTB, but in the absence of these factors my case should have to be extraordinary.

If my use of torture is not accepted at any of these points I almost certainly deserve punishment for my actions.

Harrold October 13, 2006 11:27 AM

The torture provisions of the Geneva Convention are not clear enough to Bush, much like the “horrid” US Bill of Rights against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The problem with most modern law is that it is overly specific. I mean, if you swindle someone over the phone, there’s a law, but when you do it over the Internet, we needed a new law. Why? Fraud is what’s illegal, not the means of committing it. Yet we seem to be in a position of creating ever more laws that only serve high priced lawyers, not those they are meant to protect because we can never understand even a small percentage of the laws already on the books.

Torture rarely produces good intel that could not be gathered using other means.

And yes, the more we torture, the more we intimidate, the more we impose sanctions, the more the other party hates and distrusts us.

It is funny (odd) to read that more isolation is wanted for North Korea because of the nuke test. The more they are isolated, the less they feel connected, and the more they will need to sell a nuke bomb in order to get cash. It’s as if we want them to be bad so we isolate them and force them into the behavior we supposedly do not want.

Besides, the US built its bomb in the 1940s. Are we really supposed to be surprised that other nations cannot build a bomb some 60 years later?

Now, who can we torture to stop the Iraqi violence, the Afghani violence, the Palestinian violence, the Hezbollah violence, the threats from Iran and North Korea?

Back on the timebomb threat… A plane crashes into a NY building only a few years after 9/11. Had this been a terrorist attack, it would have been full of fuel and/or explosives and would have flown faster into the side. Like 9/11, real terrorist attacks are rarely set to go off and fail due to capture and interrogation/torture. Such a “solution” will almost never occur because such attacks are nearly impossible to stop.

Besides, terrorists have never attacked with any modern, powerful weapon yet, so why they will all of a sudden have a nuke or the like is crazier still. No government would want such a group to use a nuke because the retaliation would be so great that some nations would cease to exist. In the end, even the crazy Taliban and others want to live and control their own (and apparently others’) destiny.

RvnPhnx October 13, 2006 12:09 PM

“Brazil” (the movie, not the largest country in South America)
Thank-You Terry Gilliam.
(The commentary audio track on the DVD is good as well–just make sure to watch the movie once without it first.)

Reasonable October 13, 2006 1:18 PM

I think that if my family were under a threat of death, and if I believed some kind of torture is the only way to significantly increase their chance of survival, it would be my duty to get this information using questionable tools. I would expect no less from those responsible for the safety of my family. Of course, torture can lead to false confessions, and in general has a bad impact on resentment and on the soldiers doing it. But in some extreme cases, this is all balanced out by the ability to save lives.


Glenn October 13, 2006 1:52 PM

@Sparohok and Aborted:

I find your points compelling, but not completely convincing. Mark Bowden made a similar argument in a long and thought-provoking Atlantic Monthly article three years ago:
(may require a subscription)

Where I get stuck is in putting the entire risk and responsibility on the interrogator to make the judgment. If the interrogator makes the wrong choice under very stressful circumstances, the personal consequences can be terrible. It doesn’t seem fair to make the interrogator guess what the consequences might be.

Anonymous October 13, 2006 2:13 PM

I think most people have the basic concept of torture wrong.

Torture isn’t a means. It is an end.

You won’t get useful information via torture, and you actually reduce your leverage. “Good” torture is survivable by the victim, so that they can presumably tell you something of value. If you don’t kill them, then they learn that they can survive the worst you can do to them. So one rapidly reaches a point at which they have nothing to lose. And even if the supposed TTB scenario is correct, you have the right guy at the right time, he’s probably fanatical, so you wouldn’t get good intel anyways.

From what I see, torture is simply punishment, nothing more.

And from a moral standpoint, assuming you’ve done the proper homework, there’s nothing especially “wrong” with punishing those who actually deserve it. Nor with punishing them in particularly brutal, cruel, or unusual ways – if it’s actually somehow deserved.

But there’s a lot of hypocrisy in pretending that torture serves any sort of higher purpose.

Sparohok October 13, 2006 2:51 PM


You’ve missed the structure of my argument. I assume — arguendo, because I do not personally believe this to be true — that there is a plausible TTB scenario where torture would in fact save lives, and would be the morally correct choice for the interrogator. Even making such an assumption, I argue that torture should remain illegal.

My analogy to the “citizen ambulance” is useful precisely because it is morally clear cut — unlike torture. Even in a case where breaking the law is unequivocally the right thing to do, we still shouldn’t accomodate it in our legal code, instead leaving it to the discretion of the justice system.

If you accept my argument, then you don’t have to examine whether torture might actually be effective in some hypothetical TTB scenario. It should be illegal regardless of its potential effectiveness.

As Glenn points out, that puts a heavy onus on the interrogator to make the right choice or accept serious consequences. I have no problem with that. Torturing someone is much worse than running a red light, and the consequences of making the wrong choice should be serious. I don’t WANT to make things easier for torturers.

Kyle Wilson October 13, 2006 3:08 PM

The other interesting slope here comes when you move on to groups. You have credible evidence that the terrorist lives in a particular building, goes to a particular place of worship or similar. You know something terrible will happen if the bomb goes off. How many people are you willing to torture (knowing that most of them are innocents) to make sure that you torture the right one. The TTB scenario weighting suggests that number should be pretty large in a nuclear TTB situation because you’re always being presented with a ‘greatest good for the greatest number dilemma’ If the scenario presented in this article doesn’t get you then the one I just threw out should. Can we torture everyone who worships at the mosque where we think the terrorist worshipped in order to get him? Women too? Children in case his kids go there?

It also seems interesting that so many techniques are being presented as not torture and not degrading. Can we start using these on murder suspects? How about other felony suspects? If they are presumed to work for terrorism (and are not seen as being particularly bad) then why wouldn’t we want to sleep deprive and stress-position all of the suspects in any particularly unpleasant murder? I know that these techniques don’t actually work, but if one buys the claims of the administration that they do work and that they are not abusive of the prisoner then we should expect to see them being used in a broader range of non-terrorist cases as time passes.

Glenn October 13, 2006 3:26 PM


Torturing someone is much worse than running a red light, and the consequences of making
the wrong choice should be serious. I don’t WANT to make things easier for torturers.

I get that point. I really do. Suppose we think of the interrogator, though, not as a “torturer,” but as a sincere public servant we have hired to act on our behalf to get vital information. That’s where I get to worrying about fairness. And when I speak of the consequences of making the wrong choice, I’m speaking also of the potential consequences of not torturing someone in a given situation, as well as the consequences of, say, torturing an innocent person. When I sniff the “all torture is ineffective” argument, I smell “facile.”

(I wouldn’t assume an interrogator is a torturer any more than I’d assume a terrorism suspect is a terrorist.)

Jef Poskanzer October 13, 2006 4:08 PM

If the torturer is prepared to take full legal responsibility for his acts then I say go for it. Torture the suspect, and then go to jail for 20 years to life. Whether the bomb gets found or not is irrelevant to the torturer’s punishment.

Max Lybbert October 13, 2006 4:24 PM

/* If [interrogation technniques] are presumed to work for terrorism … then why wouldn’t we want to sleep deprive and stress-position all of the suspects in any particularly unpleasant murder?

Great question. My working definition of “not torture” is “something you could see on ‘Fear Factor’ or similar shows.” Sleep deprivation and stress-positions fall into that area for me, and not only can we do it, Americans are lining up to volunteer for this kind of abuse.

Last weekend, a Russian reporter was killed. This week, her last column appeared — an in-depth expose on torture in Chechnya. The techniques in that article (hanging people from rods, and electrocuting them) are torture. But there’s a big difference between that and “being kept naked in an air-conditioned room.”

scosol October 13, 2006 5:32 PM

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.

It’s not as simple as that- in an interrogation I’m not sure what the truth is. But- for example if I was a sniper aimed at a man about to push the button to kill millions of people, I wouldn’t hesitate to commit “murder” and shoot him-

But interrogation is very different IMO, and as you, I would not do anything like that. My own line is I think drawn at mental versus physical stress. I would have no problem exposing a suspect to 24hr loud music, sleep deprivation, insinuated threats of physical harm to themselves or loved ones, desecration of their religios materials etc- Additionally I think that things like this should only be applicable to those that have been charged with a crime themselves. As in- even this mental stressing is IMO unethical towards someone who is being “detained” for circumstantial reasons, but when it’s a situation of “you planted these 3 bombs and we need to know where your co-consipirators hid the other 7” then it’s a different matter.

Davi Ottenheimer October 13, 2006 5:56 PM

“Suppose we think of the interrogator, though, not as a “torturer,” but as a sincere public servant we have hired to act on our behalf to get vital information. That’s where I get to worrying about fairness.”

I guess I wasn’t terribly clear in my post above, reading it now, but the political underpinning of torture is in question.

How the “superior” of the sincere public servant will regard them post-incident has everything to do with this dilemma. Seems as much or more about living with the consequences if a superior’s order was wrong, than if you were wrong.

I would contend that the professionals know what they are doing and can make the right call. What they object to is being pressured to do things they recommend against or normally would never attempt, under false pressure of a TTB, and they sense they might be left holding the bag when their leadership backs down.

In terms of the ambulance it’s like a driver getting a call from the hospital to run the red lights and use top speed regardless of the costs, while the driver knows that this is likely to cause more deaths/injury and still not improve the chance of saving the one in the back.

I highly recommend reading the wpost article…

Sparohok October 13, 2006 7:58 PM

Suppose we think of the interrogator, though, not as a “torturer,” but as a sincere public servant we have hired to act on our behalf to get vital information.

I’ll go you one better. I’ll suppose the interrogator is me. From my perspective, that’s the most sympathetic possible actor. You’re welcome to use yourself instead. So let’s think this one through.

Let’s say, somehow, I’m the only one in the right place at the right time to torture the guy and get the information and defuse the bomb. Would I prefer if torture were illegal or legal?

Honestly I really don’t think I would care. For me to even consider personally torturing someone, I would need to be facing overwhelming moral consequences, like the near certain death of lots of people. Under those circumstances, under such moral pressure, I really don’t think that mere legal consequences would signify one way or another.

If the situation were prosaic enough for me to spend time pondering whether the jury would be on my side, then I really don’t think I’d have the moral conviction to be torturing someone to begin with.

Incidentally, the same logic applies in the “citizen ambulance” case. If my injured passenger’s wounds are minor enough that I am worrying about a $200 ticket for running a traffic light, then I should probably just wait for the light to turn green.

Richard Braakman October 14, 2006 7:08 AM

@Max Lybbert: The contestants on “Fear Factor” give their consent. They’re also self-selected. Those factors make a big difference, not only in the moral considerations but also in the scope of the injury done to them.

Consider the matter of having to eat a cockroach, which is a recurring event on Fear Factor. On the one hand, we have someone who does it as a challenge, for a large reward, and who thinks of it as icky but not essentially worse than mussels or snails. On the other hand, we have someone with an insect phobia, who’s being forced to do it, in stressful and humiliating circumstances, and who normally gets nausea and nightmares from thinking too vividly about even touching a cockroach.

Can you honestly say that it doesn’t become torture in such conditions?

John October 14, 2006 7:04 PM

gnome wrote:

“The poor, tortured Gitmo detainees. They’re being tortured into gaining 18 pounds apiece. I’d bet the African refugees would welcome that kind of torture.”

Excellent point, gnome! Good on you! Let’s shut down Gitmo and use the money to feed starving Africans!

Err… that is what you meant, yes?

Phillip J. Birmingham October 14, 2006 10:50 PM

Great question. My working definition of “not torture” is “something you could see on ‘Fear Factor’ or similar shows.” Sleep deprivation and stress-positions fall into that area for me, and not only can we do it, Americans are lining up to volunteer for this kind of abuse.<<<

People line up for sex, too — does that mean it would be okay to rape a suspect?

J. October 15, 2006 1:40 PM

How ironic I read this today while I also saw the movie “L.A. Confidential” today. Not about torture, but there’s certainly violence used to obtain (or silence) information, by the LAPD. It is always succesful in that movie, which surprised me (then again, its a Hollywoody). A movie based on the Standford Prison Experiment is “Das Experiment”. Recommended. Remember it is easy to talk about fiction and having ethics, but when they are tested, the outcome may be different. The ethics of Exley in the movie “L.A. Confidential” are tested, and influenced, by what he experienced.

The interrogator has to chose between 2 evils: torture, or don’t torture and X innocent people killed. The problem here is what exactly does the non-torture part include and is it certain such would result in X innocent people killed? What are the alternatives to torture? This dilemma is one humans are not at easy to deal with since both choices are not prefered (ie. chosing between 2 evils; we prefer an ideal choice we morally stand behind) hence the damage of either choice will be minimized, which has costs attached. One of these efforts to minimize the effects may indeed be cover-up / kettle (doofput in Dutch, my native lang).

The other problem is that it is assumed that this subject has knowledge about the attack and has the knowledge to stop it. You cannot know such for sure until after you received the information AND used it (succesfully) to stop the attack. However in practice such premise may or may not be true.

Similarly, why torture if you can use a lie detector, sodium thiopental (sodium pentothal)? Are those suddenly not effective anymore? Is there public research torture is more effective than these?

Under the name of “terrorism” it is easy to legalize anything, ‘temporary’, targetting terrorism but legally worded broadly targetting a broader group. I believe there was a democratically chosen Austrian who claimed similar ‘temporary’ measures. History is created by historians & co to learn from. Past is.

I’m inclined to believe torture has different usages than receiving information, including: human experiments, mind control / servants (WWII, MKULTRA, Cold War, et al), due to PTSD and DID (MPD). If such is your goal, a terrorist attack, a war, prisoners, sub-humans, fear tactics are all very useful for your agenda to construct a situation where you’re able to argue your goal of torture is A, but in reality your goal is B (or B + C, or B as side effect of A, etc). The public won’t know, as its all done behind the doors of publicity, and what the people read in published form is based on agenda A. Whistleblowers won’t be protected, they’ll have a hard time instead. The Information Wars. In 50 years when we war with aliens it’ll be a classic, wink (kidding on the aliens and the number 50 is from the thumb, ofcourse).

Davi Ottenheimer October 15, 2006 3:11 PM

@ Sparohok

“For me to even consider personally torturing someone, I would need to be facing overwhelming moral consequences, like the near certain death of lots of people.”

Yes, but what about your source of information about the “overwhelming moral consequences”?

The problem is that we are not usually facing choices based on first-person information. So the bigger question, I believe, goes back to whether you trust your leadership and their claim to “official” information?

Consider this story of a Palestinian who says he was raised to believe Jews must be killed:

“I chose to speak out because I was a victim, as a child I was a victim of this horror. Now I see other victims, millions of them, kids. I was taught songs about killing Jews. You need to get rid of the education system where they are teaching this type of thing and get rid of the terrorist groups.


A militant-turned-peacemaker, Walid wants to meet the Israel soldier he tried to kill almost 30 years ago.

His voice cracking with emotion, Walid said he would offer the soldier his hand and say to him: ‘Please understand, we were just children, brainwashed to kill you, to hate you.’ I would seek his forgiveness.”

So while you or I might balk at the idea of finding an extreme situation where torture is justified, the question is much harder when you ask someone already led to believe that the person they are faced with is their mortal enemy and deserves to die under any circumstance.

Jon Sowden October 15, 2006 4:08 PM

Great question. My working definition of “not torture” is “something you could see on ‘Fear Factor’ or similar shows.” Sleep deprivation and stress-positions fall into that area for me, and not only can we do it, Americans are lining up to volunteer for this kind of abuse.

Google [define: torture] returns “the deliberate, systematic, or wanton infliction of physical or mental suffering by one or more persons in an attempt to force another person to yield information” from

If it (sleep deprivation, stress positions, etc) isn’t torture, then what is it?

If it isn’t torture, then why is it being done?

Ralph October 15, 2006 5:50 PM

Above all guard your heart, for from it flow all the issues of life.

When suduction comes, it is always that; seductive.

J2 October 17, 2006 10:33 PM

Is someone who is willing to die in a suicide bombing attack likely to reveal useful information during torture?

The scenario also has problems if the suspect has been in captivity for months or years. What remains of any presumed knowledge they have of cells or contacts or phone numbers after 3.5 years in Gitmo?

Mord October 18, 2006 2:32 PM

I hate to be as banal as this, but anyone who stoops to torture and murder of innocents for the greater good is no better than any other person who would torture and murder innocents for what they saw as the greater good.

Police don’t preempt crimes. They punish the guilty afterwards. Torture is attempting to preempt the crime, when what we should be doing (first) is making the world a place where people don’t need or want to commit crimes, and then punishing the KNOWN guilty afterwards. Entering the nebulous area of “preempt a crime” is of the same moral character as “blow up a bunch of people so I can get into heaven.” I believe that such a good end will come about, so it doesn’t matter that what I’m doing is denying people their liberties.

It sounds so black and white when I say it that way, but if my wife and child are under a terrorist threat, it doesn’t mean I get to go out and kill somebody else’s wife and child to save them. And if I did, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t want to be around me afterwards.

Cooney October 18, 2006 7:11 PM


I think that if my family were under a threat of death, and if I believed some kind of torture is the only way to significantly increase their chance of survival, it would be my duty to get this information using questionable tools.

If we were in that situation and I was a soldier/cop next to you, and you decided to torture a suspect, I would have to shoot you. Torturers get no quarter.

Eduardo October 18, 2006 10:50 PM

A great thread of discussion, thoughtful and useful. Someone suggested a while back that the point of torture is not so much to elicit information as to seek revenge, to simply inflict pain. This seems to me very true. Furthermore, it seems to be part of an orchestrated attempt to fan into flames a conflict, basically between the (ex-?) christian world and the world of islam. For reasons of power, wealth? Ask pope Benedict. Much of this discussion about the ethics and efficacy of torture may be distracting us from a bigger point.
I am not psychopathic enough to properly understand, but someone who could clearly see the possibilities and could make it apparent to all of us was George Orwell. “1984” was so prescient it is frightening, and today’s world so much echoes Winston Smith’s. Surely they can’t do this to us. Get all your friends to read it and pay close attention.

Matthew October 24, 2006 5:00 PM

I am preaching to the converted here, but this discussion is too apropos my life.
I was tortured on Nov. 22, 2005 9:30-11:00 PM in a diplomatically plated van, with one-way mirror windows in the back.
Torture Techniques used:
handcuffed to a steel and aluminium high-backed interrogation chair bolted to floor
eyelids taped
3 flood lights aimed into eyes from 3 foot range
IV drug administered in left arm (Amytal matches the effects experienced)
electro-shock cuff wrapped aroud right upper arm
slapped in face with vinyl gloves
eyesocket flicked with finger of interrogator
knuckle of interrogator driven into cheek soft tissue

This happened on a quiet residential street in Toronto, within rock throwing range of Yonge street, a landmark in Toronto.
Those that tortured me appeared justified in their actions as they believed I was an Islamic fundementalist terrorist. Nothing could be further from the truth, but they seemed stuck on it.
I am on long-term disability from work with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’ve been out of my career for > 1 year so far. All the agencies involved are not responding to my email probes. No one will confirm anything.
With the legal climate in the UK, Canada and the US, surely the real terrorists have won.
It was with disappointment I read in the Toronto Star today that the extraordinary search and seizure powers granted by the 2001 Anti-Terrorist Act are being extended another five years. We remain in a state of siege here in Canada as a result of these laws.
Time for a change of government

Wesley Parish May 15, 2012 7:01 AM

No I’ve got a brilliant idea for getting the truth out of University students. Three year exams are obviously a lost cause, since with the advent of portable telecommunications devices, the borders are porous.

Waterboard students in lieu of End of Year Exams. Or thumbscrew them, or rack them, or …

It fulfills all the “requirements” posed by the Ticking Time-Bomb scenario.

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