The advocates of state-sponsored torture—sadly, that's a straightforward description, not rhetorical hyperbole—constantly bring up the "ticking time bomb" scenario. It goes something like this:
1. We know, for a fact, that there's a bomb set to go off in some heavily populated area.
2. We know, for a fact, that the fellow in captivity knows where to find it, how to defuse it, or some other key piece of information that you could not get from any other source.
3. Time is short, and the man won't talk. "C'mon, boss," one of his captors says—"lemme soften him up a bit." "I can't allow it," replies the by-the-book lieutenant. "We've signed that damned U.N. Convention on Torture, and our hands are tied." The first officer bristles, because he's a street-smart cop who plays by his own rules.
This is, of course, a very important hypothetical situation to consider, because it has recurred, again and again, in our nation's screenplays. It obviously justifies torture, as surely as the upcoming chase scene will overturn a fruit cart before it's over.
But forgive me: I'm reluctant to rewrite the law merely to make room for Hollywood scenarios that have never actually played out in real life. If this ever did happen, there's little doubt in my mind that a jury would refuse to convict the heroic cop who saved New York, assuming he even gets brought up on charges in the first place. The prohibition against torture exists because real-world cases tend to be somewhat iffier.