Ticking Bombast

What would you do to save millions of lives?

Let’s say you’ve caught a suspect and you’re sure he’s a terrorist, and you’re sure there’s a nuclear bomb somewhere in Manhattan, and you’re sure he knows where it is, and you’re sure this particular terrorist has been trained to resist torture just long enough that you could never get the true location of the bomb out of him in time. But you’re also sure this particular terrorist is a pervert! And he tells you that if you’ll rape your own child in front of him, he’ll tell you exactly where the bomb is and how to disarm it. And you’re sure that he will, because your intelligence is that good in exactly that way.

Wow! Fascinating hypothetical, huh? And it’s only slightly more far-fetched than the more familiar ticking time bomb scenario, in which you must torture the suspect to save all those innocent people. Both versions have to be laid out awfully precisely. In my scenario, I even assume the nuclear terrorist has been trained to resist torture for a time. Improbably, Alan Dershowitz—the torture enthusiast and original time bomb booster—does not.

So how come we hear so much about the torture quandary and nothing about mine? Why, according to Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay in a November 2005 Knight-Ridder report, has Dick Cheney adverted to the Alan Dershowitz version “several times” and mine never? Why does Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) tell the New York Daily News editorial board that various torture techniques “are very rare, but if they occur there has to be some lawful authority for pursuing that,” at least in “those instances where we have sufficient basis to believe that there is something imminent,” but never says anything about creating “some lawful authority” for emergency incest?

The answer is simple: State agents don’t have any ambition to rape their own children.

This is a clue to the real misdirection of the ticking bomb scenario. It’s always presented as a “What would you do?” dilemma, but in truth it has nothing to do with you. The proper question is: “What should we allow officials embedded in the security bureaucracy to do with impunity? What shall we let their bosses order without legal repercussion?”

You could construct 100 hypotheticals involving utilitarian tradeoffs and terrorism, none less plausible or implausible than the first. What if the suspect demands you fix the World Series and this was your team’s best chance at a championship in 50 years? What if he says he’ll tell you where the bomb is if someone will explain the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, in words he can understand? What if he’ll make sure the bomb doesn’t go off in exchange for a ride on the space shuttle? Hey—it could happen.

If you could stop a bomb from killing 1 million Manhattanites at the cost of your own life, would you do it? What if it would mean imprisonment for the rest of your life? Could you live with yourself if you let all those people die for your own comfort? If you couldn’t, and you somehow just had to torture this bad guy to stop the bomb, then you ought to do it anyway and face your punishment. Right? Leave possible pardons and runaway juries aside. We are hard men for hard times, and we want hard make-believe conundrums.

Here’s another poser: Suppose you’re an innocent suspect whom your captors are convinced is a terrorist. They don’t believe your protestations, so they decide to torture you into a confession. The more you protest your innocence, the more frustrated they get that you won’t “crack.” What do you say to get them to stop? How do you get them not to decide they need to hurt you even more?

That puzzle has two features that make it unpopular with torture advocates. It asks you to sympathize with the victim rather than the perpetrator. And for too many people, it isn’t a hypothetical at all.

Jim Henley lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, and runs the weblog Unqualified Offerings (highclearing.com).

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