The ‘ticking bomb scenario’ and its tortured logic

Despite the fact that for more than half a century the argument of the ‘ticking bomb scenario’ has been shown to be ridiculous and utterly contrary to reality, it seems that the very neatness of its twisted logic ensures its perpetuation by those sympathetic to the use of torture. Such neatness, embroiled with a crass yet effective emotive sting, likewise ensures that those who oppose torture are regularly cast as favouring the “rights” of one murderous terrorist over the lives of millions of innocent citizens.

We all know the argument so no need to repeat it here. If not known, the tenets of the scenario are detailed in the document Defusing the Ticking Bomb Scenario. Why we must say No to torture, always, published by the Association for the Prevention of Torture

Opponents of the scenario invariably highlight the immense number of assumptions that need to be made regarding the particular ‘exceptional’ circumstance. Indeed, the sheer quantity of these outlandish predicates are sufficient to destroy the probability of the event ever arising. However, before even attacking its hollow argument, one must first understand that by simply proposing the scenario, the proposer has already opposed a repeatedly endorsed consensual prohibition, has therefore opted out of a moral absolute. Could we, therefore, expect an exceptional circumstance wherein genocide is permissible, wherein slavery is permissible? Or, as Žižek suggests, could we expect an exceptional circumstance wherein rape is permissible?

As for the actual assumptions of the argument, the Association for the Prevention of Torture, in the document cited above, outlines their monstrously unrealistic nature:

The ticking bomb is based on a number of assumptions, some of which may be hidden or only implied when it is first presented. These hidden assumptions should be exposed. For instance, the ticking bomb scenario typically supposes certainty, or near certainty, as to all of the following:

  1. A specific planned attack is known to exist.
  2. The attack will happen within a very short time (it is “imminent”).
  3. The attack will kill a large number of people.
  4. The person in custody is a perpetrator of the attack.
  5. The person has information that will prevent the attack.
  6. Torturing the person will obtain the information in time to prevent the attack.
  7. No other means exist that might get the information in time.
  8. No other action could be taken to avoid the harm.

The scenario also assumes:

  1. The motive of the torturer is to get information, with the genuine intention of saving lives, and nothing more.
  2. It is an isolated situation, not often to be repeated.

The document continues to expose the dangerous fallacies and improbability in each one of the assumptions.

The problem, as I see it, is that this argument works extremely well in a chat-show, rapid interview, scaremongering, media environment where people are firstly not given time or space to work through their arguments, and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, are cowed into not being labelled a terrorist-sympathiser, a liberal pansy, a traitor to the nation, etc.

Furthermore, the scenario is presented as a two-path predicament akin to the philosophical ‘trolley problem’ – i.e. you’ve two alternatives and you must make choose one: do you a) torture the captive or b) not torture and allow hundreds/thousands/millions to die.

Such a predicament can arise in reality. About ten years ago I read Nicholas Montserrat’s harrowing novel set in the 2nd World War about the Atlantic convoys, The Cruel Sea. The skipper of a Royal Navy corvette, attempting to manoeuvre his ship towards survivors from a torpedoed convoy vessel, is compelled to drop a depth charge into the oily waters right amidst the swimmers, because he believes the U-boat is still present and its destruction would obviously save other vessels of the fleet. Although the account is fictional, it does not seem too far-fetched.

It is similarly alleged that Churchill’s government had cracked the German code and knew of the imminent bombing of Coventry but did not alert the city so as not to reveal to the Germans that they had cracked the code. Again, I believe this allegation is contested, but it shows a probable, if not genuine, predicament.

The ‘ticking bomb scenario’ is unlike this split-path argument, as so many wholly improbable predicates need to be satisfied before the final two choices are presented. Furthermore, owing to moral opposition of the concept of torture, the putative subject would have chosen other paths even if certain of those prerequisites had obtained, and thus the final decision point would never have been reached.

Lastly, let’s not overlook the fact that even were the improbable event to arise, one would have to ask ‘who does the torture?’ Obviously one wouldn’t want an amateur doing the job, nor would one want some testosterone-filled policeman handpicked for his excellent treatment of the G20 protestors. One would want a competent, calm and experienced torturer who is best qualified to get the results and save the multitude. How would such a person gain his knowledge? Would he (or she) have to attend the CIA School of the Americas? Would it be theory-based training only, or could they gain some practise in the field?

And so on…

From whatever way you look at it, it is a logically bankrupt argument in addition to its moral and ethical bankruptcy.

Yet for its covert, aggressive and distorted logic, it will continue to be wheeled out before a docile audience in the service of any system that has been caught adding a turn to the thumbscrews…

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