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The ticking bomb problem

May 12th, 2004

In response to the exposure of widespread torture of Coalition prisoners in Iraq and elsewhere, it’s inevitable that the “ticking bomb” problem should be raised. As Harry Clarke asks in the comments to this thread

‘You hold a terrorist who knows the location of a defusable bomb which, if exploded, will kill x million people. Do you have the right to torture him/her to find the bomb?’

Instead of offering an answer to this question, I’m going to look at a question that follows immediately, but doesn’t seem to have been asked. Suppose that you have used torture to extract information from a prisoner in the belief (correct or not) that doing so was justified by a “ticking bomb” situation. What should you do next?

My answer is that you should turn yourself in, and plead guilty to the relevant criminal charges. I think this answer can be defended from a wide variety of perspectives, but I’ll take an intuitive one first. If the situation is grave enough to warrant resort to torture, it’s certainly grave enough to justify losing your job and going to jail.

In consequentialist terms, it’s desirable in general that laws against torture should be obeyed. Since few people will want to follow your example (particularly if they can’t plead a ticking bomb in mitigation) your action in such a case will undermine the law less than if you committed torture and got away with it. Other theories will, I think, give the same answer.

Turning from individual ethics to law and public policy what this means is that laws against torture should be enforced in all cases. A plea in mitigation might be considered in cases like the one described above – an urgent and immediate danger, followed by a voluntary confession. In any case where a confession is not made, no claims about mitigating circumstances should be admitted.

Since, to my knowledge, no torturer has ever made an immediate and voluntary confession, the practical impact is that the ticking bomb scenario should be disregarded in any consideration of the legal and political response to torture.

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  1. May 12th, 2004 at 11:47 | #1

    you should again ask what then.

    Since the ticking bomb scenario is disregarded in the legal response, the rational thing for an individual faced with the scenario is to not turn themselves in, if they go ahead with the torture.

    this is what i would do. if i was sure (as much as possible) that torture would lead me to the result, i would do it and try and get away with it. torture isn’t completely ruled out in my individual ethical scheme, although i rule it out for states (especially in a position of power) because the possibility of setting a precedent is large, and the actual damage it does directly. (look no further than recent events)

    an ethical individual who makes the choice, never tells anyone, and gets away with it, is unlikely to set any kind of precedent.

  2. Homer Paxton
    May 12th, 2004 at 11:56 | #2

    the tortured prisoner may well only give you information you want to hear rather than information you need to hear.

  3. May 12th, 2004 at 11:56 | #3

    A military force, establishing a contested occupation in the face of guerilla resistance based on significant social support, is always sitting on a “ticking timb bomb”.
    The admin. use of torture is probably inevitable in these cases, if only to preserve the morale of the occupying force. This is because the soldiers do not want to lose the intiative and become “sitting ducks” for the terrorists which will happen unless they get good intelligence. And the only way to get good intelligence is to “sweat it” out of captives. The case of Algeria is instructive in this respect.
    US soldiers will not long want to be sacrificed to the qualms of their more sqeamish civilian principals. It follows that the US Occupation of Iraq probably requires torture to be militarily effective.
    But these practices cannot long co-exist with Open Society moral codes. Thus torture must become a Closed Society affair, secret or outsourced. THis has already happened, with the US torturing prisoners in Abu Gharib or sending terrorist suspects for interrogation to Egypt.
    The grim logic of contested Occupation will therefore assert itself. If we stay we lose our Souls, if we go we lose the war to Devils.
    The alternative is to have an ineffective Occupation and political failure. This is the worst of both worlds, since US military and Iraqi civil society both suffer terrorism with no prospect of resolution.
    I conclude that, if the US wishes to preserve its repuation for purity of arms, and avoid a destructive pointless military contest, it will have to withdraw main forces from Iraq.
    This will certainly negate any strategic gains it hoped to make in the region, which were clearly wishful thinking in any case. It may also lead to failed state, civil war and terrorist harbouring for Iraq.
    I wonder if Pr Q has a neat way to resolve that moral dilemma?

  4. May 12th, 2004 at 12:27 | #4

    Grating minds think alike. Here is Steve Sailer on the problem of ruling a country where the nice people who want you to stay are nice and the minority who want you to leave are nasty:
    “Why is the prison scandal so disturbing to Americans?
    Objectively speaking, this is predictable stuff. If you want to make an omelet out of Iraq, you got to break a few heads, yada yada. Consider the should-be famous scene from The Battle of Algiers:”

    When challenged at a press conference about torture, French Col. Mathieu answers with Descartes’ logic and Cyrano’s panache: “The problem is: the FLN wants us to leave Algeria and we want to remain … Despite varying shades of opinion, you all agree that we must remain … Therefore, to be precise, I would now like to ask you a question: Should France remain in Algeria? If you answer “yes,” then you must accept all the necessary consequences.”

    “This kind of Abu Ghraib garbage is, generally speaking, one of the necessary consequences of us wanting to remain in Iraq while a lot of the more violent young Iraqi males want us to leave. (Forget the opinion polls — in an insurrection you don’t count noses, you count balls.) I always thought it was not a good idea for us to be in Iraq, precisely because we’d end up being responsible for this kind of thing.”
    The US should get out of Iraq, the sooner the better, preferably handing over peace-keeping duties to the UN. Elsewise Iraq will go bad, ala Beirut. Although I was wrong when I thought that Iraq would come good, a la E Europe. Perhaps the Iraqis will amaze us all with their civic resilience.
    This will probably require paying a huge bribe to Axis of Weasel allies that it previously derided, which many will see as a fitting punishment.

  5. Homer Paxton
    May 12th, 2004 at 14:53 | #5

    there is one problem with your prognosis the people who were abused were not terrorists merely people caught up in a sweeping of the streets. Thus no useful information would have been gained. These acts were pure and simple sadism

  6. May 12th, 2004 at 16:14 | #6

    To JQ’s knowledge… so much for his knowledge.

    A standard technique of Tudor absolutism, e.g. with political assassinations, was to send out people to do illegal acts and then pardon them. It kept them under control. It is actually a standard method to make law breakers work to executive requirements – and it involves them throwing themselves on their superiors’ mercy and not going private.

  7. Harry Clarke
    May 12th, 2004 at 16:31 | #7

    John, Are you suggesting that torture should always be prosecuted by law but that acts of torture might be morally justified in a Ticking Bomb situation and that the torturer’s confession plus factual demonstration of a Ticking Bomb situation is a mitigating circumstance?

    That’s what it sounds like you are saying until your last sentence ‘the ticking bomb scenario should be disregarded in any…legal and political response to torture’ and this as a consequence of the fact that people don’t act morally.

    Might not a law be a good law even if it is sometimes abused? That’s it is abused doesn’t mean it isn’t a good law. (Thanks for conversations with Yew-Kwang Ng).

  8. Harry Clarke
    May 12th, 2004 at 16:31 | #8

    John, Are you suggesting that torture should always be prosecuted by law but that acts of torture might be morally justified in a Ticking Bomb situation and that the torturer’s confession plus factual demonstration of a Ticking Bomb situation is a mitigating circumstance?

    That’s what it sounds like you are saying until your last sentence ‘the ticking bomb scenario should be disregarded in any…legal and political response to torture’ and this as a consequence of the fact that people don’t act morally.

    Might not a law be a good law even if it is sometimes abused? That’s it is abused doesn’t mean it isn’t a good law. (Thanks for conversations with Yew-Kwang Ng).

  9. cp
    May 12th, 2004 at 16:49 | #9

    [Homer] Exactly – on both points.

    I hope it won’t get worse, but I fear it will.

    In the end it’s ok to bomb and starve and torture people, as long as you can pack up and go back to your happy “safe” fortress (and hopefully make a nice profit from the mess you’ve left behind). Let’s face it, if you’re big enough, you can do whatever you want, and you know it. What the law says is irrelevent.

    Pity those who have to be left behind, or who want to go “home” but see there’s nothing left for them now.

  10. John Quiggin
    May 12th, 2004 at 16:51 | #10

    PML, a confession with a prearranged pardon was not what I meant. I’ll try to clarify on this point.

    Harry, my point here is that, even if you allowed mitigation for cases in which there was a “ticking bomb” justification, there would be no practical impact, since such cases are vanishingly ratre. And as para 3 indicates, the mitigation I envisaged still implied that the torturer would lose their job and go to jail – a point that is also relevant in relation to PML.

  11. May 12th, 2004 at 17:51 | #11

    JQ, I knew quite well what you meant, I was just telling you what mechanics are routinely used to achieve the effect. Have a look at the second generation of Israeli senior politicians – each and every one a terrorist who not only got away with it, benefitted from it. (Or look at the careers of the 17th century Monck, Argyll, Captain Morgan…) Remember too the fate of Lieutenant Calley after My Lai.

    It is your scenario that is hypothetical. Treason doth never prosper, and the same goes for actual torturers under the aegis of protectors – when protected, they aren’t torturers.

  12. John Quiggin
    May 12th, 2004 at 18:54 | #12

    “an ethical individual who makes the choice, never tells anyone, and gets away with it, is unlikely to set any kind of precedent.”

    c8to, how does your ethical individual torture a suspect without their knowledge?

  13. Harry Clarke
    May 12th, 2004 at 19:19 | #13

    I don’t understand John’s story. That people have not in the past made confessions to non-existent courts (where mitigation on the basis of a Ticking Bomb issue could be sought) hardly suggests to me that the Ticking Bomb issue is an irrelevant concern in formulating attitudes to torture.

    I think a more practical answer here is that a moral case might exist for torture as the theoretical answer to a hypothetical issue but that the costs of using torture are so great that the case for it is in practise almost vacuous. And I agree with John, strong laws against torture therefore make very good sense even if they ignore this remote case.

    I feel a bit dirty asking this type of question since I feel at times I am backing myself into a corner where I am trying to come up with an argument for torture — I’m definitely not.

    My main concern is a simpler and less dirty (and more prosaic) issue concerning utilitarianism of which the current discussion is a particular extreme case. It is country-simple:

    Most social programs hurt someone so if this pain is a consideration you would do nothing. But this is counterintuitive. So what to do?

  14. Geoff Honnor
    May 12th, 2004 at 19:25 | #14

    Could I ask how we understand ‘torture’ for the purposes of this discussion?

  15. Harry Clarke
    May 12th, 2004 at 19:26 | #15

    The Australian this morning (p1) reported that a terrorist manual in Indonesia targeted
    ‘businessmen and economists’ and specifically named Australians.

    My question is whether John’s blogsite is being read by Mr. Bin Laden (has he ever made a contribution?) and whether I should apply to my Dean for danger money?

  16. eric bloodaxe
    May 12th, 2004 at 21:40 | #16

    how can you be sure the torturee knows where the bomb is? and how can you be sure he tells you the truth?

  17. James Farrell
    May 13th, 2004 at 00:35 | #17

    What I don’t get is why the Captain is linking the issues (1) whether, when we break the law for ethically justifiable reasons, we should turn ourselves in, and (b) whether torture is ever justified. The first issue could be made simpler by considering a case that’s straightforward from an ethical point of view. For example, if I break into a pharmacy to obtain medication for someone who would die without it, should I afterwards turn myself in. I don’t know the answer, but at least I can work on a solution without agonising about whether breaking in was right.

    We strip our examples to the bare essentials in econonomics, so let’s do it in ethics too.

  18. May 13th, 2004 at 12:12 | #18

    john: you kill them after you have the information.

    (devil’s advocate) actually, thats probably a stable outcome. then they wont come back to avenge you torturing them.

    at any rate, i speculate that abu ghraib is not about getting information. a bunch of hicks from the military police aren’t “sweating” the serious prisoners, its probably done by the CIA. and the CIA sure as hell wont be taking any happy snaps. thus abu ghraib is completely unnecessary and shows a lack of discipline and professionalism within the US forces, at a time when they need to conduct themselves impeccably.

    furthermore, i disagree with strocchi that torture is a necessary part of the occupation. if torturing prisoners creates more willing terrorists than it leads to captures, then its a bad policy.

    as far as i know, world war 2 in europe was won without torturing countless germans. (civilian populations were bombed, and japan capitulated because we destroyed hiroshima and nagasaki which is obviously no less horrific than torture, but its not torture for interrogation per se)

    at any rate, the US can “win” the ground war in iraq without torturing random iraqi prisoners. the US is in a position of power, and it is in their best interests to have a fair fight, even without adressing the moral concern of minimising harm.

  19. May 13th, 2004 at 12:16 | #19

    eric: how can you sleep at night when a plane could crash into your bedroom? how do you know you wont get hit by a bus today?

  20. May 13th, 2004 at 13:03 | #20

    “as far as i know, world war 2 in europe was won without torturing countless germans.”

    Some thirty-plus years ago, at school, I read a book that listed various recent atrocities. There were a couple from the USA, as well as a great many from the Germans and Japanese. One of the worst US atrocities listed was that complaints were received about the treatment of former concentration camp guards. Of fifty, all but one had had their testicles destroyed by repeated kicking.

  21. May 13th, 2004 at 15:22 | #21

    Some are against torture – and some like cato are for it – it’s a conscience issue. More significantly, the USA military and probably every other military in the world are for it.

    It’s an inevitable part of war as JS says. It may strike some as being more objectionable than bombing cities and destroying villages but it is as integral to warfare as those. Is it not a parlour game to devise moral proofs against it or for it, given that it is perennial and universal.

    The post-war recriminations about who did the nastier things – always the loser – are just a cathartic ridding of the psyche of the wartime experience. It’s a self-deceiving ploy to regain peacetime tranquility of the spirit.

    The main game is to find ways to avoid war when possible. But once it has started it’s a riderless horse.

    All laws and conventions about war are window dressing. If they weren’t then where are all the prosecutions against crimes commited by the various victors over the last few decades. My Lai et al are of course the usual exceptions.

  22. May 13th, 2004 at 18:35 | #22

    My Lai was no exception – the prosecution process was subverted by precisely the executive clemency pardoning method I outlined earlier.

  23. Harry Clarke
    May 18th, 2004 at 03:51 | #23

    The Israelis do use torture in ‘ticking bomb’ situations according to today’s Sydney Morning Herald. Writing of their security organisation Shin Bet the article states:

    “Under court restrictions, the Shin Bet can use “moderate physical pressure”, including sensory deprivation and shaking short of causing permanent damage, on so-called “ticking bombs” – suspects it believes know about imminent attacks”.

    The article goes on to describe the sexual humiliation tactics used in Abu Ghraib as ineffective — they ‘break people’ and this, they state, yields useless information.

    By the way this is the approach suggested in the recent revival of the US case for torture — get court approval for the procedure.

    The ‘ticking bomb’ scenario is not just academic — it is a practical issue for countries such as Israel. This of course is not to say it is a morally justified response.

  24. May 18th, 2004 at 20:07 | #24

    If torture is an effective tool, then why haven’t we found the weapons of mass destruction?

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