Debunking The “Ticking Bomb” Argument For Torture

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]

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One Response to Debunking The “Ticking Bomb” Argument For Torture

  1. matt says:

    you assume it wouldn’t work. and pose that as a fact. in fact, it might work, and could work, and theoretically would sometimes work. might work, would eventually work sometimes, is a truth… never work is a falsehood. if the person is lying about knowing the lknowledged, that’s the posoition they put themself in. sometimes you know they have the knowledge cause they are the one who plante teh bomb with the pass word etc.
    true, these are unlikely… and people such as yourself like to point that out, and use the emotional appeal of it being like a movie, and how mean it is to torture. but it’s possible. torture is at least justifiable in that situation, and it doesn’t mean it’s not in lesser situations, weighing the pros and cons. it could be justifiable in lesser situations,tehe world isn’t black and white. you just have to accept the conclusion of your position that you shouldn’t ever torture, even if millions would die. the slippery slope isn’t necessarily a bad thing always. by the way you’re avoiding that conclusion, as most do, by flimsy arguments, shows that you’re just as willing albeit keeping it in, to consider torturing. you want the viability of it not to exist, so you don’t have to deal with it. but it does exist, and might lend itself to more torture.

    admit you’d let millions die. or…
    deal with it.

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