Entertainment Law


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.


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  1. You’d think the torture advocates would wise up and start advocating tougher anti-bomb-setting laws. That’d solve the problem.

    (I seem to have gone of a bit of a sarcastic tear today. I should go look at flowers or something.)

  2. The ultimate hole in the “ticking time bomb” scenario, of course, is that all the captive has to do to beat the system is lie.

  3. Here’s a piece by Patrick Buchanan on the subject.


    If we buy this, the concept that everything is justified after 911 and imminent danger is everywhere, anybody using a library computer could be yanked in and wired up with nobody ever knowing about it.

  4. Of course, our street-wise cop will see through that ruse. “You’re lying,” he’ll say, coldly.

    “What makes you think that, you Amerakeen pig-dog?” will ask the Evil Villain.

    “I can tell. Now I’m gonna count to three. One…two….”

    “Okay, okay, the bomb really is in the Empire State Building!”

    “That’s better,” says Our Hero, kicking the villain in the chops.

    * * *

    Advocate against torture as a means of interrogation note that it’s remarkably bad at extracting meaningful information. Oh, you’ll get confessions up the wazoo–because people will confess to just about anything if it will keep them from having their fingernails yanked out. But it doesn’t get to the real nub of things–“Where’s Osama?”–“Does Iraq have ties to al-Qaeda?”–“What is your next terrorist plot?” A prisoner being interrogated under pain of torture may answer these questions–but the answers will have the factual content of a Robert Fisk column.

  5. Given the 67 days of torture in the Phillipine case, you might have time to verify whether someone is lying or not….. however if you get ahold of someone who really does not know, and you could be putting someone through hideous torture for nothing. Clever terrorist organizations probably operate on a need to know basis for this reason, and if you caught someone working for them they may not necessarily know where the ticking time bomb is. So you say they deserve it anyway? Perhaps, but this also doesn’t bode well for the wrongly accused who will never be able to tell information they don’t have.

    Perhaps the best usefulness of torture is the mere threat of it. Someone who doesn’t care much for a cause who is only doing it under threat of punishment, or example, would probably respond well once they see the electrodes. If they just don’t know or are dedicated enough to their cause to endure the pain, it isn’t worth going through with it.

  6. Jim,
    The problem with the threat of torture is that it makes surrender less likely and endangers our troops. If you were a lowly footsoldier that knew there was a decent chance you’d get tortured upon capture (or that your family would), you would fight to the death, no matter the odds. However, if all you had to do was semi-peacefully (and in better conditions than your usual surroundings), then you would likely surrender and sit out the war. It’s better for our troops if we engage in the former, rather than the latter. In fact, the net benefit for us would be positive by not torturing because the gains would be minimal (due to the cell nature of the organization).

  7. Mo,
    Nobody is threatening lowly conscript soldiers with torture. The discussion is about torturing terrorist agents.

  8. Um, don’t the cops always “know for a fact” that the suspect was guilty? After all, as Ed Meese said, they must have been up to something, or they wouldn’t have been arrested.

    Reminds me of Ashcroft’s reassurance that the military tribunals were OK because the crime in question was terror, and people guilty of such an abomination weren’t entitled to the same due process as ordinary criminals.

    Oh, so the kangaroo courts are only for those OBVIOUSLY GUILTY people? Well, that’s different! But again, don’t the jackboots ALWAYS “know” the people they arrest are guilty?

    If the State already knows who’s guilty of terrorist activity, and if it’s safe to trust its claims without forcing it to prove them beyond a resonable doubt, why not just apply the same principle across the board? Why are we wasting all this damned money on trials? We’ve wasted a lot of effort enforcing a Bill of Rights that presumes the government can’t be trusted, and has to be restrained.

    As the Devil (aka Ned Flanders) said once: “You Americans, with your due process and fair trials–this is so much easier in Mexico.”

  9. One thing:

    The Philippine authorties’ torture worked.

    It saved about 4,000 lives.

  10. …and now I see Tim’s post above.

    I think I’ve seen far too many accounts that the torture did take place to push it off as almost-urban legend.

  11. 4,000. That’s all?

  12. Rad – Prove it. No free passes.

  13. Just for the sake of argument: what do we have to lose by “softening up” a hypothetical captured terrorist? (Other than the respect of the UN, Amnesty International, and an assortment of individuals and countries that are going to be critical of us regardless of what our policy of the moment might be.)

    Stipulating, of course, that this would not apply to anyone who has a legitimate claim to due process (Jose Padilla, for example).

    I mean, sure, they might lie, but it isn’t like they’re going to spill their guts to us if we do nothing…

  14. If you, personally, can tie down another human and torture them you are a scumgargling piece of shit.

    That’s why.

  15. There are certain imminent danger exceptions to the fourth and fifth amendments. They have been created by the courts and recognized by the Supreme Court expressly for the “ticking bomb” exception. From the oral arguments I’ve seen, Justice Breyer – the big liberal – is the big proponent of this. In fact, if I was a state’s attorney trying to justify a forced confession, or a seizure on something less than probable cause, I’d point out the danger to school children. Justice B. gets all wild about that.

    The problem with absolutists — and I’m talking about you, Kevin & Lefty — is that you are willing to cut off your nose to spite your face. The obvious example is if radiation detectors reveal that a bomb has got loose in Manhattan, but it can’t be tracked down precisely with the equipment – a not unlikely scenario due to our sketchy . The FBI catches a couple known Al Qaida, or Hezbollah (more likely given Iran) operatives hopping on a freighter bound for Yemen. The two are rotten with decaying radioactive material, yet they don’t talk.

    How many Manhattanites are you willing to let die to vindicate your principles?

    I would have felt differently about this pre-9/11. Sadly, I believe this has now become a valid debate. WIth this being the case, the odious Dershowitz’s argument — that court approved “torture warrants” would provide a necessary oversight — seems less odious. That said, there is no nice or neat answer here.

  16. >>Just for the sake of argument: what do we have to lose by “softening up” a hypothetical captured terrorist?

  17. LL,
    How will the lowly conscripts (or terrorist footsoldiers) know that we’re not targeting them, but not their superiors? Every soldier knows something and in the heat of battle they’re not going to torture me, they’ll only torture “insert random higher up.” It’s nice that people fighting us realize that WE ARE the good guys and that we will treat people humanely. That is what we have to lose. When the French (to pick a popular punching bag) torture and show imperialistic desires it is merely the French being the French. However, when we do it, it is more shocking because it is un-American (historically speaking, not in the traitor sense).

    I don’t want it institutionalized. I’d rather we have a blanket policy against it and have it broken only in extreme cases by a loose cannon, than to have a policy for it that will be open for interpretation of what a “ticking bomb” is.

    How low will we sink? Will we resort to the policies of countries like Egypt that will rape the wife and children in order to get a confession (one of the reasons my family left)? We don’t have anything tangible to lose, but we risk losing our humanity. Maybe I have a pie in the sky view of the way America should be, based on why my family moved here and what my dad told me. But, if I were in the city with the ticking bomb and I had a choice between dying and allowing government sanctioned torture (even of OBL, whom I despise more than anyone [I’d prefer freelance torture of him]), I would rather die.

  18. The decision to use torture to extract information from a terrorist in the “ticking bomb” scenario is clearly a political one, in the sense that the person entrusted with the security of the nation needs to be the one to make it.

    Once the President has made the decision that the information is vital enough to the safety of the nation to use torture, he must issue a full and complete pardon for all persons who have any responsibility in the act, moving the legal responsibility for the act to himself. In that case, Congress has the option to investigate the decision, and impeach and remove the President from office if they don’t feel that the decision was justified.

    His successor would then have the option of issuing a pardon to the former President, if he feels strongly that former President was sufficiently punished by being removed from office.

  19. Peter. Tell me what a “wrong” country is. Is your last name Whitefeather? Are you an American Indian?

    If not, shut up about immigration.

  20. >>If not, shut up about immigration.

  21. I am not a pacifist. I would kill to defend myself, my family, my community, or my nation.

    But I would rather be dead than live in a nation that tortures people. There are some things you just don’t do.

  22. I’m with Mo and Joe and blogger Jim Henley, who we can forever credit with the “because we’re the United States of Fucking America” argument.

  23. Mountain Goat:

    You have a point on those warrants. I find it hilarious that there is a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that has only ruled against the spooks once in its entire history, and they had a FISC appeals court on ice all those years just in case FISC ruled the wrong way and the spooks needed the decision reversed.

  24. How would you even know that there IS a ticking bomb? A good hunch?

  25. The problem with “torture warrants” is that we again trust government to act in our best interests. I will remind all that search warrants are now routinely approved, and it is the rare exception that isn’t. That led to warrantless searches becoming accepted in the courts. Where do we think torture warrants will lead?

  26. Assuming any good leader wouldn’t order his minions to do anything he wouldn’t do, ordering the torture of a human being would make that leader a scumgargling piece of shit, too.

  27. If torture really is being discussed as serious option, something has already gone very wrong with society.

    In the West is immigration. Immigraton from the wrong countries, countries with too different cultures.

    Multiculturalists have got it wrong. Multiculturalism only works (with som luck) in a prosperous society. Just a real finanical crisis (lack of material sources, starvation; not just a recession) will set off a chain reaction of accusations and hatred. (“It is the XXX who are using all our resources.”)

    For living multiculturalism, see Ruanda, Yugoslavia, Israel or Chechnya.

    It is hard enough to deal with the Leftists in the West without also having to put up with the threat from the people they want to import.

    To be fair it must be admitted it is not just the Left who want to loosen immigration rules. Industry leaders have an interest in importing cheap labor whatever the long term effects.

  28. How come I haven’t heard anyone suggest this one yet? – we sanction torture, but only in the case where the one ordering the torture and the ones carrying it out agree to undergo the same torture, and if the torturee is convicted of a crime, the torturers have to serve the same sentence. (I’m joking, of course. Half-joking, at least.)

  29. Here’s a Hollywood plot for you… We get a reputation for torturing prisoners, so the enemy begins setting secondary bombs which only those who are tortured reveal the locations of, as a trump card. When the agents of torture investigate, BOOM, possibly (in my imaginary screenplay) allowing the now-diminished torturers to be easily overwhelmed in a prison break. Soundtrack by Yanni.

  30. Here’s a Hollywood plot for you… We get a reputation for torturing prisoners, so the enemy begins setting secondary bombs which only those who are tortured reveal the locations of, as a trump card. When the agents of torture investigate, BOOM, possibly (in my imaginary screenplay) allowing the now-diminished torturers to be easily overwhelmed in a prison break. Soundtrack by Yanni.

  31. Here’s a Hollywood plot for you… We get a reputation for torturing prisoners, so the enemy begins setting secondary bombs which only those who are tortured reveal the locations of, as a trump card. When the agents of torture investigate, BOOM, possibly (in my imaginary screenplay) allowing the now-diminished torturers to be easily overwhelmed in a prison break. Soundtrack by Yanni.

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