Not Saussure

October 24, 2006

Ticking Bombast

Filed under: War on Terror — notsaussure @ 10:03 pm

Let’s say you’ve caught a suspect and you’re sure that he’s a terrorist, and you’re sure there’s a nuclear bomb planted somewhere in Manhattan, and you’re sure that he knows where the nuclear device has been planted in Manhattan,…

No, not ‘Are you justified in torturing him?’;   Jim Henley has a surprising twist on the ticking bomb scenario and what exactly it might or might not be thought to justify.   Very well worth reading, as are the comments.   I particularly liked this one:

Something I’ve always wondered about the ticking-bomb scenario: how is it possible to have a situation where your intel is good enough to know there’s a bomb, know it’ll go off at X o’clock, and know the guy you’ve captured has the exact info you want, but you don’t know where the bomb is?

though these two are pretty good, too:

Comment by Hesiod —
October 18, 2006 @ 6:25 pm

Or, the terrorist says: “If you gouge your own eyes out with a knitting needle, I’ll tell you where the bomb is.”

Or…he says: “You you bring me your President’s head on a platter, I’ll tell you where the bombe is,” or…

“You torture Alan Dershowitz to within an inch of his life and I’ll tell you where the bombs is,” and so on.

Hey…this is fun.

Comment by Glaivester
October 18, 2006 @ 6:39 pm

“You torture Alan Dershowitz to within an inch of his life and I’ll tell you where the bombs is,” and so on.

This wouldn’t be a hard decision even if there weren’t a bomb.

Via Backward


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2 Comments »

  1. For some time now I have been criticising the mock-moral philosophers who use the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario, arguing that the scenario operates on a presumption of knowledge on the part of the torturer that would, in all likelihood, make torture a redundant way of proceeding.

    And, because such a scenario is utterly unlike the situations in which torture is actually used, given that there never has been a ‘ticking bomb scenario’, but there have been many ‘torture scenarios’.

    One of the best responses to the Deshowitz-inspired abolition of moral sense was offered by Belle Waring at Crooked Timber:

    “The ticking nuclear bomb scenario is more plausible, of course. We capture some Al Quaeda guy, and though we don’t torture him, as we don’t know about the bomb, he folds like a cheap suit anyway, destroying his life’s ambition, by telling us that there is a nuclear bomb set to go off in Manhattan, but that he doesn’t know where it is. Then Bruce Willis and the FBI rappel into Osama Bin Laden’s secret hideout, and arrest him, and he’s all “you didn’t read me my rights”, and this one straight-laced FBI agent starts to Mirandize him, but then Bruce Willis is all: “you have the right…to get your ass kicked!”, and he goes buck wild on Osama, and he totally caves and tells them where the bomb is and what the disarm code is. So then, Bruce Willis is racing through the streets of New York, and maybe some funny things happen like a hot dog vendor gets in his way, and he has to drive up on the sidewalk. I was thinking he could maybe be in a taxi with a driver who has a humorous subcontinental accent, but that’s optional. And then Bruce Willis gets to the bomb, and it has a big red digital readout that’s counting down under one minute, but first Bruce Willis has to fight this one super-strong Al Quaeda guy who knows Islamic martial arts, and at the start of the fight Bruce Willis is totally getting schooled, and blood is coming out of his nose and stuff, but at the absolute last second he hits the guy with a tire iron, and then he enters the code right as the digital display ticks down to 0. We’ll all wipe our collective foreheads and say “phew” when that happens, I can tell you!”

    It displays all the connection to reality appropriate to an answer to the ‘ticking bomb’ thought experiment.

    Finally, and I’m not sure where I read this, but someone suggested that, if a government official really believed that torture, and the attendant abandonment of morality, was the only correct way to proceed, then part of the process would be that the official giving the order would also be tortured in exactly the same way as the suspect. Torture, therefore, could not be normalised and it could not be taken lightly. And if there was a genuine belief that torture was absolutely necessary, who would object? If that is the price of finding the ticking nuclear bomb…

    Comment by Andrew Bartlett — October 25, 2006 @ 9:16 am

  2. Indeed. The whole scenario is fatuous — the idea of an organisation that infamously specialises in suicide bombings deciding to faff around with timing devices on its bombs is pretty bizarre, to say the least. That’s particularly so in this example — it’s hardly as if it’s going to matter that much what time of day or night you wipe Manhattan off the face of the earth, after all.

    A better, and more realistic, thought experiment, to my mind, would be whether it would be justified to torture someone you were sure was a kidnapper (or one of his accomplices) in circumstances where you were certain that finding the victim immediately was essential to the victim’s survival. This has the advantage of realism, including introducing the very real possibility, based on well-publicised examples, you might eventually find you’d been torturing the wrong person after all.

    It wouldn’t, though, serve what I suspect is the real purpose of the ‘ticking bomb’ discussion, which I take to be — apart, of course, from satisfying some people’s sadistic fantasies — somehow legitimating the idea of torturing terrorist suspects by making it a topic of common debate; the real reason for wanting to be able to torture suspects isn’t so much, I think, that you might be able to glean valuable information (you might, but working out what’s genuine and what’s not is still going to be a problem) but that having it as a threat is a useful way of intimidating people.

    Comment by notsaussure — October 25, 2006 @ 8:09 pm


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