Torture and the Ticking Time Bomb

 (This article appeared in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, December 16, 2014.)

Why do people torture others? Why do they march others into gas chambers? Because some are psychopaths or sadists or power hungry. Depravity is in their DNA.

Some are not inherently depraved but believe the situation demands torture. If others are evil and we are good, then we should kill and torture them with impunity. Such ideas result from the demonization of others, from a simplistic worldview in which good battles evil. If others torture, they are war criminals; if we torture are motives are pure. But the world is more nuanced than this. There is good and evil within us all.

The apologists for torture say they are protecting you. They may believe this but that doesn’t make it true. It may be in their interest to wage war, construct secret torture facilities or incarcerate millions in their home country, but it is probably not in yours. You or your children might be doing the fighting or the torturing, and you might suffer the reprisals from the policies of the rich and powerful. Dick Cheney will get another deferment.

Moreover the torture advocates can easily turn you into instruments of their perversion, unlocking the perversion within you, as the Stanford Prison Experiment shows. If the best government jobs program hires mercenaries, then some sign up. But be warned. Those who were caught and photographed at Abu Ghraib were sentenced to prison—scapegoats for those who authorized the policies. Donald Rumsfeld received a book contract.

So do you really feel safer knowing that your corporate-owned government wages continual warfare and tortures around the world? That they incarcerate millions of their own citizens in high-tech dungeons? That thousands languish in solitary confinement for years, some since they were children? That police often kill without repercussions? You may suffer no blowback. Perhaps your nationality, race or socio-economic class will shield you. But the depravity sown may also be reaped. If you are not among the rich and the powerful, the judge will not be lenient. If you are captured in a foreign land, being an American is not a plus.

Now I can construct thought experiments to justify torture or almost anything else. Should I imprison, torture or kill one to save a hundred? A utilitarian calculation says yes, one is less than a hundred. Torture’s defenders invoke such stories. They especially like the ticking time bomb scenario. It goes like this.

There is a ticking time bomb ready to blow up an American city. (If you’ve been to many inner cities in America, you’ll find little left for a bomb to destroy.) The bomb will soon detonate and the man who planted it is in custody. Surely we shouldn’t be squeamish about torturing him to save thousands of lives. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, a horrific human being,  recently defended this argument. Scalia is a Catholic in good standing. So was the Grand Inquisitor.

The ticking time bomb story reminds me of Wittgenstein’s insight that we can be bewitched by a picture, seduced by simplistic examples that misrepresent the world. Think about the problems with this hypothetical story. You may kill this man before getting any relevant information, he may know nothing of the plan, there may be no such plan, or he may lie to stop the torture. In such cases your torturing was for naught, it did nothing but corrupt you. The image cheats because it assumes there is a ticking bomb and you have the man who planted or knows about it. In real life it never works that way.

In real life it works like this. There might be a bomb or an attack planned, and you may or may not have people in custody who knows something relevant. Now how long and how severely should you torture these people? If they don’t talk is that a sign that they don’t know anything or that you should up the torture? If you have twenty prisoners and are sure that one of them knows something important but you don’t know which one, do you torture all twenty? Should you torture suspects’ children to see if that induces them to give you the information you want? (The CIA of the United States threatened detainees in this way.) Remember you don’t know if that will work until you torture their children.  How many children do you torture before you stop? In such cases was your torture justified? Was it moral? Or did it engender hatred? Was it counter-productive?

In fact, if you are worried about enemies foreign and domestic, why not torture everyone who is a potential threat—college professors, torture opponents, ACLU members, Buddhist monks, grandmothers and bloggers who don’t like torture. Perhaps the enemies are among us like we thought they were during the McCarthy era. Maybe your colleague in torture is a spy. Should you torture him? Should he torture you?

The picture of the ticking time bomb bewitches because it’s a fabrication. In the real world the choice isn’t one person’s pain versus the suffering of thousands, it is the moral affront of torture and its repercussions versus the possibility of finding something useful. Remember too that the story portrays the decision as a one-time emergency choice, while in the real world decisions are made in the context of procedures and policies. That’s why the following questions need to be asked to. Should we have professional torturers who, like medieval executioners, are schooled in their practices? Maybe a torture major in college? Trade conventions showing the latest high-tech torture devices? These are not idle questions; they need to be addressed if we are to proceed.

So I ask. Do you really want to set a precedent of using barbaric practices that appeal to our worst instincts? Do we want to bring forth from human nature the savagery that which lies just below the surface of civility? Do you really want to create a torture culture and the people who inhabit it? Do you really want torturers walking among us? I think not.

7 thoughts on “Torture and the Ticking Time Bomb

  1. I feel like I have so much to say on this topic but this isn’t a topic where people who are susceptible to become torturers can be reached by reason, I worry.

    I think the bravest thing someone can do is to die for their beliefs (unaided by the promise of reward or drugs, including religion). I imagine it takes that sort of fortitude to lucidly face the end of your existence for an ideal. With that premise, it strikes me as utterly contemptible not simply to fail to live up to one’s ideals but also to try and buy the most meager change for one’s safety by inflicting pain on others. That seems beneath cowardly even.

    And it strikes me that cowardice is what indeed seems to be at the core of the people driving such things. They may talk of “doing what’s needed” and acting all puffed up, but look at the insanity regarding ebola in the US. The same sort of folks were talking about making “brave” decisions to punish people going to help in West Africa, or isolating the US…

    My first reaction on listening to these people was to chuckle not just at how ridiculous they sounded but to think they looked transparently cowardly. How shocked I was to find myself an outlier in this perspective. I expected them to be mocked; it turns out they tapped into a public sentiment that was even more afraid than even they portrayed on TV.

    What happened to leaders like FDR? Who can remind the public that fear is what we have most to fear?

  2. I’ve heard the line many times “all we have to fear, is fear itself,” but you brought it home to me. Thanks.

  3. I got here via today’s (12/21/14) Salon article which was cited at the Yahoo home page. I have so far just read the Salon article and this post about torture.

    On the basis of what I have seen so far, you are a refreshing and well articulated voice of sanity, and will be added to my RSS feed. I merely a high school graduate and so will likely be a lurker with nothing of note to add to your excellent expositions, but I did wish to express to you my admiration and desire to read more of your blog.

    PS – I am from a less liberal part of TX than Austin and would not have one friend if by using my real name my ‘atheist bleeding heart liberal views’ happened to be discovered. Hence the hiding behind the ‘handle’ exrelayman.

  4. Mr. Messerly, you referred to Zimbardo’s work (I would also advocate readers check out his book: “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil”). A point that I too thought of while reading about current events.

    I grew up hoping that the U.S. would be the moral high ground for a world that has turned more despotic, but time and time again I hear about our moral failings. I’ve now come to the conclusion that the truth is we are a self-righteous country that wears a white moral mantel when it suits are purpose. In truth it appears to me that our country is a white-washed sepulcher of dead man’s bones.

  5. The torture report is appalling, but your refutation of Scalia’s ticking time bomb thought experiment amounts to an unconvincing slippery-slope argument. Outlandish dystopian fantasies of McCarthyism-with-torture do not refute the reasonable suggestion that a nation’s safety and security outweighs concern for the well-being of a small handful of people. We make similar calculations when we go to war or imprison criminals, so why is torture different? I hoped for insight on the ethical dilemmas raised by deliberately inducing suffering, but instead I got essentially an utilitarian argument against Early Childhood Torture educational certificates.

  6. There is a simple answer to the question of torture. After all Socrates faced the same question in his time and arrived at the only acceptable answer – he chose death.

    Remember the story – Socrates was accused of corruption of the youth and impiety. He was given the chance to escape the death penalty but because of his strong belief that a citizen should be obedient to the law and his agreement that he had broken the law he should be punished according to the law. He drank the hemlock.

    If a person knows of a ticking time bomb that can only be defused by applying torture then it is duty to apply torture. The state should also demand that the punishment for torture be applied because he is subject to the law.

    A person that tortures and saves others should be given a hero’s welcome and a trial for his misdeeds.

    It really is that simple.

  7. Re: James Brown. I’m not sure any of this follows. If Socrates would rather die than break the law then what makes torture a duty if doing it requires breaking the law, such that a trial is then the solution? Isn’t Socrates’ example exactly the opposite, that if the law requires us not to torture and that this leads to our death, then we shouldn’t compromise ourselves and die for our ideals? Note that this is a reiteration of my comment above.

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