Defusing the ‘Ticking Time Bomb’ Scenario

Defusing the Ticking Bomb Scenario There's no question that the pro-torture folks love to trot out the unrealistic 'Ticking Time Bomb' Scenario in order to justify the use of torture. (It even seems to find its way regularly into Presidential debates.) And then it's onwards down the slippery slope. So it's good to see some serious thought being put into defusing this politically — if not necessarily intellectually — effective argument.

Here's what the Association for the Prevention of Torture has to say about its new report, Defusing the Ticking Time Bomb Scenario:

Defusing the Ticking Bomb Scenario

In June 2007, as part of a series of activities to mark its 30th anniversary, the APT convened a meeting of experts to discuss responses to the ticking bomb scenario. In popular films and television series, on talk shows and news, in academic journals and political debates, the possible use of torture to prevent a terrorist attack in a hypothetical 'ticking bomb scenario' is a hot topic. The dramatic nature of the scenario, and the artificially simple moral answers it seems to offer, have helped it make a significant impression on public audiences. Yet this scenario ultimately seeks to destroy the hard-won absolute prohibition of torture under international and national laws. In presenting certain acts of torture as justifiable, even desirable, in distorting reality and manipulating emotions and ethical reasoning, in leading well-intentioned societies down a slippery slope to legalised and systematic torture, the ticking bomb scenario represents a grave threat to global anti-torture efforts.

Based on discussions at and following the June 2007 meeting, the APT has prepared Defusing the Ticking Bomb Scenario: Why we must say No to torture, always. This brochure provides the general public, human rights advocates, academics and governments with essential arguments against any proposed 'ticking bomb' exception to the prohibition of torture. It exposes the misleading and flawed hidden assumptions of the scenario, and emphasises the toxic effect of torture, like slavery and genocide, on societies that tolerate it. It recalls the fundamental and absolute nature of the prohibition under international law, and describes how the scenario manipulates moral and ethical judgment by obscuring the true moral cost of tolerating any act of torture.

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5 Responses to Defusing the ‘Ticking Time Bomb’ Scenario

  1. sun-tzu says:

    Assume you were President. What are your thoughts on the idea of never using torture, but deceiving the world you can and do? Assuming such a deception is maintainable, would you support it?

    It is often said the fear of torture is more powerful than the actual pain. Why not hold on to bluff-equity as long as possible? It seems to me that the only argument against this approach is that it would set a poor example to the rest of the world, who would continue torture and point to us as justification.

    But weighing these, if you could have it where our enemies would fear torture, but would never actually be tortured, would you support this?

  2. James Wimberley says:

    I’m not interested in discussing with Sun-Tzu how to justify crimes. But if you want some evidence of what actually happened in the two cases I’ve heard about that come close to a ticking bomb scenario, read here. They don’t support a state policy or practice of torture.

  3. suntzu says:

    Either you misunderstood my question, or you believe that the threat of torture is a crime per se. I think the threat of torture and actual torture are not the same thing. Does not mean the former is necessarily good, that was the point of prompting the discussion.

  4. Brian says:

    Whenever I hear arguments about the ticking-time-bomb scenario and the justification for torture, I think of Justice Jackson’s dissent in Korematsu. Although Justice Jackson wrote specifically in regard to a construction of the equal-protection clause that allowed racial discrimination against Japanese citizens, his message is equally applicable here. In effect, he wrote that the while the Japanese threat to America’s liberty in WWII may have been great, judicially sanctioning the rounding up of Japanese produced an even greater threat to America’s liberty. I see no difference here. Al Qaeda’s threat to the United States may be great. But officially sanctioning torture to to “defend” our country would indeed be a greater threat to the United States.

  5. suntzu says:

    Nobody is saying we should torture or roundup Japanese. Only Muslims. Please pay attention.

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