A real life ticking bomb problem

A while ago, I looked at the ticking bomb problem and concluded that, whatever the morality of using torture to extract life-saving information in emergencies, anyone who did this was morally obliged to turn themselves in and accept the resulting legal punishment. Reader Karl Heinz Ranitzsch has pointed me to a real-life case, reported by Mrs Tilton at Fistful of Euros. The case involved a threat of torture, rather than actual torture, and the deputy police commissioner involved was convicted and fined. Without detailed knowledge of the circumstances, I tend to agree with Mrs T that this was about the right outcome.

13 thoughts on “A real life ticking bomb problem

  1. Holy cow, Quiggin! Leaving the issue of this police officer to one side, may I say that I have read your stuff with great interest since you were a guest-blogger at CT, but never before realised how very impressive a beard you have.

    More seriously, I am highly interested in the business about Daschner. The minor Volokh imp who argued against you on the abstract theoretical issue was, well, minor and abstract. In Daschner, by contrast, we have the archetype of the Good Man Doing Somethimg Bad. I ache to find a way to hold him in impunity; yet can’t find it, and think that for the best. But I also think that, in a case like this, a small punishment suffices to proclaim: all else taken into consideration, we cannot approve of this.

  2. So the argument is that:

    It is okay for someone to torture to save lives, but then when they do, they have to be punished so everyone can feel good about themselves.

    That is moral cowardice by the society. They are having the cake and eating it too. It is one or the other: either we never accept torture and thus sacrifice those lives; or we realise that sometimes rules need to be bent and broken in exceptional circumstances with no puishment for the torturer.

  3. “moral cowardice by the society”
    I would have thought that the moral cowardice would be claiming that (a) torture is immoral, but (b) it is permissible sometimes.

    A society must deny torture all legitimacy for the same reason that doctors have to try to save the life of everyone brought into Casualty – irrespective of whether the patient has just shot a cop; tried to commit suicide; or ridden a motorbike without a helmet.

    “we realise that sometimes rules need to be bent and broken in exceptional circumstances with no puishment for the torturer.”
    It is impossible to see how you could legislate this.
    It would have to fall under the general too-hard-basket of a Just War, where you have to accept civillian casualties, wounded soldiers etc as a fact of having a war.

    Surely the ultimate act of having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too is an entirely relative appraisal of each instance as they emerge. This is exactly what John Travolta’s character asked of the good guy in Swordfish: If you could save the lives of 10 people and all you had to do is kill an innocent six year old girl, would you do it?”
    The answer was no.
    “How about saving 100? How about 10,000?”

    I see no position either way that can be logically and rationally extended to extremes, ergo each position is as morally bankrupt as the other. They both appeal ultimately to some notion of the Greater Good.
    Doctors should try and save everyone because, in a situation where seconds can be the difference between life and death, arguing over the patient’s merits will ensure innocents die.

    Torture is nowhere near as clear cut as medicine, however. Advocates of torture simply MUST acknowledge that information extracted during torture is highly suspect. An extreme example of this is historical witch hunts. Also mishandled torture, ala Abu Graib, is a PR nightmare. Essentially this discussion is the same as that of the death penalty ie knowing the immense short-comings of justice systems how can someone possibly support a death penalty?

    As for the instance of a policeman threatening torture and then being punished this is a case of one swallow not making a summer.

  4. As far as legislating goes, if I understand correctly, there are many laws where the only guideline is whether it is “reasonable” to do so.

    Harry, I don’t have a problem with your stance that all torture is wrong.

    I can even understand someone having that belief, with the exception to do so if it saves lives.

    However, I do have a problem with someone who says “all torture is wrong”, but wants other people to save their life by doing so, THEN expects their saviour to be punished so they can take their moral highground after they have benefited from the torture.

    That sort of attitude smacks of hypocrisy and cowardice.

    To the other comparisons, the killing of a 6 year old girl, is in no way comparable to the torture for information of a non uniformed terrorist (as opposed to an enemy uniformed soldier).

    I would never do the former, not for a million lives. But the latter, I would do to save one.

  5. Hi wpc,
    Thanks for your comments and discussion.

    I am intrigued by your comment that a non uniformed terrorist is different to an enemy uniformed soldier.
    What if a uniformed soldier has planted the bomb?
    Would you torture a uniformed soldier to get the code that cancels the nuclear missile launch?
    What if the only person you can find who has the cancel code is a six year old girl?
    Surely it is the bomb/attack/missile that you want to stop and all other considerations – including the morality of torture – are secondary. This includes the age, sex and clothes of the person you are about to torture.
    Since the assumption has been made that innocent people will suffer does that not mean that whoever planted/launched the bomb/missile is guilty by default?
    By separating a terrorist from a soldier you are suggesting that this is not the case.

    And doesn’t this in turn mean that you will only torture a terrorist because you know you will be treated less harshly than had you tortured a soldier or a six year old girl?

    My stance of “no torture at all” is, in a way, an admission of intellectual cowardice – I neatly sidestep all the above questions. I simply don’t trust governements or states to fairly define who can be subject to torture. I see no way around this other than simply saying “no”, ala the death penalty.

    Yes, I would sacrifice innocent civilian lives to maintain a moral position. Interestingly enough I would shoot down the hijacked airliner but I wouldn’t torture the guy to… no I probably would.
    See, I trust me. I don’t trust governments. I would allow the governement to shoot down an airliner that might be headed for a highrise but not to torture someone who might have the information to stop it.

    I guess this is no less a tortuous position than your “I would never [torture a six year old child], not for a million lives. But [I would torture a terrorist], I would do to save one.”

    I would say you would be morally obligued to kill the six year old child. That said I would like to be able to defend myself before my peers so that I don’t go to gaol for murder. This is consistent with my views on euthanasia – the final decision comes down to the individual, the close family ie me. I trust me.

    Say the death of a six year old could have stopped the earthquake off Aceh?
    How is your moral inequivalence between terrorist and uniformed soldier any different the relative innocence of the person to be tortured.

    I can’t but conclude that the strongest position and the one that most successfully claims the moral highground is to not torture at all. At least this way it is clear who the badguys are and the good are not tainted by the type of PR stain that the yanks currently suffer from.

    What do you reckon?

  6. It might help if people could wrap their heads around Newcomb’s Paradox first.

    The thing is, “society” is not faced with benefitting from torture by condoning it, because it goes to the trouble of not condoning it, condemning the perpetrators. It’s just that it seems wasteful just to throw away the gains if by chance there are any. How, then, to keep them while not encouraging torture? The catch is that too many approaches degenerate into just the hypocrisy condemned. The present approach does seek to avoid the condoning, though, so any attack should start with whether it really does condone or not.

    For what it’s worth, the only way to prevent atrocities by those who are atrocious by nature or by habit is to say “there will be no atrocities except under my direct instructions”, not “there will be no atrocities”. The former throws sanctions away and calls the authority into disrepute among those where it is most needed. But the latter may need to be applied from time to time, by way of sanction, to avoid the bluff being a bluff. Now there’s a moral dilemma.

  7. Isn’t the ticking bomb problem not just an instance of the general perils of utilitarianism in making social judgements. The sorts of things we caution undergraduate students about — if an action increases my pleasure by U utils when you suffer pain costing -u utils then should we pursue this action if U-u >0?

    The last problem isn’t easy either but does cast the ticking bomb problem in broad (and familiar) context.

  8. P.M Lawrence is correct, it is a difficult dilemma. You could say we are talking about benevolent idealism vs benevolent pragmatism.

    I think it is good to have both types in society. Pure benevolent idealism would be a poor survival trait, and benevolent pragmatism unchecked would get more and more pragmatic and less benevolent.

    As to the specific questions/thoughts from Harry:

    My position is tortuous, because it is neither completely idealistic, nor complelely pragmatic. However it is my belief, and I would expect the same circumstanes to apply if it was my life at risk.

    You have nailed it, my decision on whether to torture or kill does depend in a large part on the “innocence” (as determined by me, or in law, by the society) of the person involved.

    I would not kill a six year old girl to stop the tsunami or a bomb explosion, unless she was deliberately causing it (then all gloves are off).

    I would not base my decision on whether to kill or torture by how badly I would be punished.

    A uniformed soldier is not subject to torture, unless he/she has committed actions outside that role, eg. the nuclear launch against a civilian target.

    A non uniformed terrorist is not entitled to any leniency. Torturing for fun or pleasure on him/her is still a criminal act, but the terrorist may be tortured or killed for any sort of pragmatic survival reason.

    Those would be difficult principles to enshrine in law (although there are other difficult principles where the attempt has been made).

    But I can respect the ultimate “do no evil” position, ie regardless of the cost of lives, we will not do evil. I just don’t agree fully with it, for the above noted survival problems (you will lose wars, and get taken over).

    I can also respect a purely pragmatic position, although it tends to deteriorate into what Iraq was under Saddam Hussein.

  9. wpc, your position is in fact new to this age (or a reversion?). Christian belief systems of the traditional sort took it for granted that we all fell short of the glory of good, that it was pretentious to claim innocence since we actually all deserve death, and it was only mercy not our own dessert that saved us. It shows up in Shakespeare as (from memory) “if we all had our desserts who would escape whipping?”.

    This whole innocence thing shows up in US horror at terrorists killing innocents, as though it was somehow better to kill those who deserved dying. That’s weird for pretending Christians, since it violates the idea that everybody needs mercy anyway, but even in a pragmatic sense there’s no point in punishing someone for something unrelated. There needs to be justice-seen-to-be-done, not “oh, he was guilty of something else so no harm done”.

  10. P.M. Lawrence, when I say their innocence or guilt, I refer to their innocence or guilt in relation to stopping/solving the crime for which they are being killed or tortured, not some global “goodness” about them. The law determines inncocence or guilt all the time, and always has as far as I am aware.

    I would not recommend the torture of someone to recover stolen property, just because in the past he/she had been a murderer.

    I can’t say I am an expert on traditional Christian belief systems, but I do believe that what you said is correct. However I am certain that people were “graded” in terms of their “goodness”, just as people do today, whether religious or atheist. When you said “pretending Christians”, you did the very same thing (or did you mean to say practicing, which makes more sense with the rest of the sentence, whatever the Freudian slip 🙂 ).

    I would have to say that I do this as well (as does probably everyone).

    To my view, September 11th was an enemy attack on our ally, thus on us. The method with which they did so (non uniformed, civilian targets) entitles them to no protection under Geneva (correct me if that’s wrong), and we do not have to treat their captured prisoners with any leniency.

    Beslan, to me, was far worse than September 11th. Torture and murder of children, with the children being deliberately chosen as a target.

    That may be “grading” crimes as mentioned above, but I make no apology for it.

    Can you really say that you would feel equally as bad about a 55 year old serial killer being murdered, as opposed to a 5 year old child?

  11. Hmm, I don’t think wpc’s views are neccessarily new. They are in essence no different to cowboy films or similar where the good guy kills the bad guy and everyone is satisfied with this result. No one questions whether justice was actually served, or whether (by the good guy explicitly going out to kill the badguy) the badguy had any other choice but to shoot at the good guy. It’s the normal “justicer” versus “vigilante” situation.
    (I acknowledge that an individual is incapable of being a ‘justicer’ – only a ‘vigilante’. ‘Justicers’ (eeg Police) can only exist as part of a much larger framework.)

    I think wpc’s views fit quite well with soldiers who kill surrendering or captured soldiers – as demonstrated in Saving Private Ryan when after the landing Tom Hanks watches two US troops shoot surrendering German troops. There was a bit of a debate about this at the time and several veterans said that they’d done exactly that and it was justified by saying that the Germans had just been mowing down their buddies and since their buddies had no chance the Germans didn’t deserve one either.
    All this flies in the face of agreed protocols on surrendering troops. Henry the Fifth famously executed all ~5000 prisoners after Agincourt. Surrendering Boers were shot out of hand. Captured US troops were massacred in the immediate aftermath of the Ardennes offensive of late WW2. Captured NVA and VC fighters ‘died of wounds’ when Aussie and NZ SAS patrols were denied evacuation by helicopter.
    This behaviour is not new.

    Certainly our modern ideas of surrendering evolved from the medieval period where captured nobles were worth more alive than dead – they were ransomed. This lead to Napoleonic officers handing over their swords and this meant they had a gentleman’s agreement to not escape. In WW2 RAF officers were expected to try and escape after they had been shot down over enemy lines and this included once they had been interned in a prison camp. (Figure that one out)
    I argue that this has now mutated into bombing a house that a terrorist entered despite the civillians inside not neccesarily been complicit in the actions of that terrorist.

    Certainly there was tension between the Wermarcht and the SS because the SS shot prisoners out of hand and executed revenge attacks on civillian areas. To the Wermarcht this was anathema to traditional military values. The Wermarcht held a dim view of the Gestapo for similar reasons including the widespread use of torture.

    My point is that conventions are all very well, but in the field and when it comes down to the individual then conventions don’t matter a damn and normally ‘wrong’ actions are justifiable. I don’t see that wpc is saying anything much beyond this.

    The main problem I have with wpc’s position is that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. I consider the Resistance fighters of WW2, Hungarian uprisers of 1956 and the Spanish Guerillas of the Napoleonic era to be freedom fighters solely because their countries were occupied. To the occupiers they were terrorists. Naturally I think that the torture of Resistance fighters, Hungarians and Guerillas was a crime.

    I disagree that my position has “survival problems (you will lose wars, and get taken over)” for the simple reason that if you have to resort to using torture then you have already lost. Once the civillian popualtion has turned against you, you have lost. Instead of torturing terrorists you need to undermine their support base ie turn civillians against them. Examples of the populace turning against terrorists include the IRA and the Basque separatists.

    Torturing might stop the bomb today, but it will ensure that there are bombs tomorrow.

    Specifically for wpc:

    “A uniformed soldier is not subject to torture, unless he/she has committed actions outside that role, eg. the nuclear launch against a civilian target.”
    How about a soldier who can be tortured to extract information that would mean that 200 of your soldiers will not be killed in a secret attack?

    “A non uniformed terrorist is not entitled to any leniency.”
    a) Why not?
    b) What about future ramifications of your treatment of them? Won’t this simply devolve into tit-for-tat ala Palestinians versus Israelis?

    “Torturing for fun or pleasure on him/her is still a criminal act, but the terrorist may be tortured or killed for any sort of pragmatic survival reason.”
    a) At what point can you torture the terrorist – after the bomb is planted or before he has made it?
    b) Do you agree with the stated US (and Australian) Pre-emptive Stike policy?

  12. Harry, I’ll answer your specific questions to me first.

    Torture uniformed soldier to save 200 lives from sneak attack:

    I probably wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t condemn someone who would, nor would I expect them to be punished for it. I don’t feel non combatants have the right to question the spur of the moment combat actions of those who are fighting for them.

    Why no leniency for non uninformed terrorist, and what about future ramifications?

    By convention, as as far as I am aware, they have no rights (same as spies).
    By me, if they are being tortured, they are already committing acts outside any set of rules, and are unlikely to cease to do so just because we are nice to them. I could make an argument, that Israel/Palestine’s problems are from too much restraint, rather than lack of it.

    When do you torture the terrorist?

    Not much point doing it before he has made the bomb. No information to be gained. Remember, I advocate torture as a means to help your side/people survive, not as a punishment or to make us feel better.

    First strike policy:

    I don’t fully know what their stated policy is 🙂 If it is striking to protect yourself from imminent attack, then yes.

    To some other points:

    “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”

    Well, yes, but I feel loathe to call people who torture and kill small children “freedom fighters”. I struggle to call people who execute by sawing off someone’s head slowly (rather than a quick bullet or axe) “freedom fighters”.

    “If you have to resort to torture you already have lost”

    I have some sympathy for that position. But I wouldn’t be suprised if there have been more than a few completely peace loving and gentle societies wiped out by the nastier society next door.

    As for the civilan population turning against you…well the one thing I agree with Osama Bin Laden is that people will usually bet on the strong horse.

  13. I was angling, perhaps obviously, to the systematic torture of Afghan prisoners at the hands of US forces or allied countries – where the prisoner is flown to a country with more lax torture laws than the States to be broken. They are being tortured for general information, not for anything specific. In effect this is torturing the guy before he makes the bomb rather than to find the location of the bomb.

    “I wouldn’t be suprised if there have been more than a few completely peace loving and gentle societies wiped out by the nastier society next door.”
    I think the British response to the IRA is the perfect example of how to deal with terrorism, which is why I always refer to it.
    The Brits were often accused of having a hunt-and-shoot-to-kill policy with regard to IRA members. The Brits replied that that was patently absurd because if such a policy existed and was ennacted for the first time tonight there would be 400 dead Irishmen tomorrow. The Brits knew who the IRA guys were and went to great lengths to catch them in the act.

    “By convention, as as far as I am aware, they have no rights (same as spies).” This is essentially true. However, by convention civillians are not allowed to take up arms against a uniformed army. This doesn’t stop the French Resistance being held up as heroes.
    The phrase “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is trite, I agree, but it illustrates the ludicrousness of arguments based on this sort of reasoning. You wrote that you feel uneasy about using the term “freedom fighter” for child torturers and those who execute in a brutal fashion.

    I have no inherent problem with anything we’ve discussed, but I have a very big beef with people who think actions and ideas can be taken in isolation and don’t fit them into a big interlinked picture.
    Take the recently blogging Amos as a prime example of this.

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