Alan Dershowitz uses the "ticking bomb" scenario to justify torture. Though Dershowitz makes other equally flimsy excuses to justify torture, the so-called "ticking bomb" scenario is the one that has the most emotional appeal. This is also the argument trotted out most by torture apologists.
The "ticking bomb" scenario goes something like this: if a terrorist has planted a bomb (say, nuclear) in the middle of a major American city (say, New York) and you have managed to capture him but he won’t tell you where he planted the bomb, what do you do? No, this isn’t a question from the movie "Speed", but it is the torture apologists’ favorite question. Would you torture the terrorist in the hope that he will tell you where he planted the bomb? Most people, when confronted with this hypothetical scenario, will likely choose torture to extract the information that will save millions of lives. It sounds so simple.
There are plenty of arguments that can be made to debunk this notion. The moral and legal argument is that if you allow torture in one circumstance, then you are liable to slide down a slippery slope that is very dangerous for a law-abiding society. However, I want to make a rather basic argument that is often lost when this emotional scenario is discussed. My argument is rather simple: torture in this circumstance is guaranteed not to work.
I don’t say that torture in the "ticking bomb" scenario may not work; I say that it will never work. The reason is simple. If you are positing a scenario where a terrorist has already decided to kill millions of people, why would he cough up information to spoil his plans? Does it really matter how much you torture him? Does he believe that if he gives up the information you, the torturer, will somehow forgive him for trying to kill millions of people? He has a much better incentive to lie. By lying he achieves a two-fer. He not only ensures that the "ticking bomb" will go off killing the millions that he intended (including quite likely himself and his interrogators), he also ensures that the torture will stop (at least temporarily) while the hapless torturer and his cohorts follow the false lead. It’s that simple. He has every incentive to lie and no incentive to tell the truth.
While Alan Dershowitz busily tries to reshape his argument, his grand experiment in torture will have killed millions of people. One could then argue that Mr. Dershowitz, by advocating a path that was sure to fail (and thereby denying law enforcement the other more effective alternatives currently at their disposal), would be morally culpable for the deaths of millions. Perhaps, Dershowitz the Torture Apologist, should consider that before he writes another one of his torture tomes.
[Cross posted at Bloggers Against Torture]