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The ticking time bomb scenario is a thought experiment that has been used in the ethics debate over whether interrogational torture can ever be justified. The scenario can be formulated as follows:
Suppose that a person with knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack, that will kill many people, is in the hands of the authorities and that he will disclose the information needed to prevent the attack only if he is tortured. Should he be tortured?
Some consequentialists argue that nations, even those that legally disallow torture, can justify its use if they have a terrorist in custody who possesses critical knowledge, such as the location of a time bomb or a weapon of mass destruction that will soon explode and kill many people.
Opponents to the argument usually begin by exposing certain assumptions that tend to be hidden by initial presentations of the scenario and tend to obscure the true costs of permitting torture in "real-life" scenarios—e.g., the assumption that the person is in fact a terrorist, whereas in real life there usually remains uncertainty about whether the person is in fact a terrorist and if they have useful information—and rely on legal, philosophical/moral, and empirical grounds to reaffirm the need for the absolute prohibition of torture. There is also uncertainty about the efficacy of interrogational torture, and much opposition to torture is based on the fact it is not effective rather than any moral issue, as well as how the decision to apply (or even allow) torture, whether or not an official process exists for doing so, might figure in the game theoretical payoff matrix of the hypothetical terrorist, or the problem framers.
The ticking time bomb scenario is extremely rare in real life,but it is often cited as a reason for using torture.
Philosopher Jeremy Bentham has been regarded as the "father" of the ticking time bomb argument.He wrote in his 1804 essay Means of extraction for extraordinary occasions:
Suppose an occasion to arise, in which a suspicion is entertained, as strong as that which would be received as a sufficient ground for arrest and commitment as for felony –a suspicion that at this very time a considerable number of individuals are actually suffering, by illegal violence inflictions equal in intensity to those which if inflicted by the hand of justice, would universally be spoken of under the name of torture. For the purpose of rescuing from torture these hundred innocents, should any scruple be made of applying equal or superior torture, to extract the requisite information from the mouth of one criminal, who having it in his power to make known the place where at this time the enormity was practicing or about to be practiced, should refuse to do so?
The 1936 Nazi propaganda film The Traitor by Karl Ritter also features a version of the time-bomb argument.
The concept was popularized in the 1960s in the novel Les Centurions by Jean Lartéguy which is set during the Algerian war. The version in the novel has the following conditions:
In the novel, the hardened terrorist quickly folds under torture and reveals the location of the bombs.According to Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College, the possibility of sudden, massive destruction of innocent life provided French liberals with a more acceptable justification for committing torture.
Alan Dershowitz, a prominent American defense attorney, surprised some observers by giving limited support to the idea that torture could be justified. He argued that human nature can lead to unregulated abuse "off the books". Therefore, it would be better if there were a regulated procedure through which an interrogator could request a "torture warrant" and that requiring a warrant would establish a paper trail of accountability. Torturers, and those who authorize torture, could be held to account for excesses. Dershowitz's suggested torture warrants, similar to search warrants, arrest warrants and phone tap warrants, would spell out the limits on the techniques that interrogators may use, and the extent to which they may abridge a suspect's rights.
In September 2002, when reviewing Alan Dershowitz's book, Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge, Richard Posner, legal scholar and judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, wrote in The New Republic , "If torture is the only means of obtaining the information necessary to prevent the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Times Square, torture should be used –and will be used –to obtain the information.... No one who doubts that this is the case should be in a position of responsibility."
Some human rights organizations, professional and academic experts, and military and intelligence leaders have absolutely rejected the idea that torture is ever legal or acceptable, even in a so-called ticking bomb situation.They have expressed grave concern about the way the dramatic force and artificially simple moral answers the ticking bomb thought-experiment seems to offer, have manipulated and distorted the legal and moral perceptions, reasoning and judgment of both the general population and military and law enforcement officials. They reject the proposition, implicit or explicit, that certain acts of torture are justifiable, even desirable. They believe that simplistic responses to the scenario may lead well-intentioned societies down a slippery slope to legalized and systematic torture. They point out that no evidence of any real-life situation meeting all the criteria to constitute a pure ticking bomb scenario has ever been presented to the public, and that such a situation is highly unlikely.
As well, torture can be criticized as a poor vehicle for discovering truth, as people experiencing torture, once broken, are liable to make anything up in order to stop the pain and can become unable to tell the difference between fact and fiction under intense psychological pressure. Additionally, since the terrorist presumably knows that the timer is ticking, he has an excellent reason to lie and give false information under torture in order to misdirect his interrogators; merely giving a convincing answer which the investigators will waste time checking out makes it more likely that the bomb will go off, and of course once the bomb has gone off, not only has the terrorist won, but there is also no further point in torturing him, except perhaps as revenge.
Others point out that the ticking-bomb torture proponents adopt an extremely short-term view, which impoverishes their consequentialism. Using torture—or even declaring that one is prepared to accept its use—makes other groups of people much more likely to use torture themselves in the long run. The consequence is likely to be a long-term increase in violence. This long-term effect is so serious that the person making the torture decision cannot possibly (according to this argument) make a reasonable estimate of its results. Thus the decision-maker has no grounds for certainty that the value of the lives saved from the ticking bomb will outweigh the value of the lives lost because of the subsequent disorder. He or she cannot arrive at a successful accounting of consequences.
This anti-torture argument, in fact, works by positing that human knowledge has intrinsic limits. An analogous argument holds that human decision-makers are fundamentally prone in certain situations to believe that their judgment is better than it is, and that, to be ethical, they must pre-commit themselves to a particular course of action in those situations. Knowing that, under stress, they will never be able to accurately assess the likely success of torture in obtaining information needed to prevent an attack, humans thus pre-commit to not torture. In general, this family of arguments faults the "ticking-bomb" scenario for implicitly including an incorrect presumption that the decision-maker can know in advance the outcome of torture, either in the short run (likelihood that it will prevent an attack) or the long run (likelihood that it will not set off a general increase in human violence).
Joe Navarro, one of the FBI's top experts in questioning techniques, told The New Yorker :
Only a psychopath can torture and be unaffected. You don't want people like that in your organization. They are untrustworthy, and tend to have grotesque other problems.
The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which was adopted on December 10, 1984, and entered into force on June 26, 1987, explicitly states in Article 2.2 that:
No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
Critics of the thought experiment scenario maintain that it is essentially implausible, based on simultaneous presence of numerous unlikely factors. This is particularly acute in fictional exploration of the scenario.
For example, in perhaps the most common variants on the scenario, one must assume that torturers know, with a reasonable degree of certainty that some form of deadly attack is imminent, but lack a crucial component of that plan, such as its precise location. They must also have in their custody someone who they are reasonably certain has said information and would talk under torture or threat of torture. They must then be able to accurately distinguish between true and false information which the subject may supply under torture. They must then be able to use this information to form a plan of response which is effective at stopping the planned attack. All of this must occur within a limited time frame allowed by the "ticking bomb".
No less importantly, there exists no historical case that satisfies all or even most of the conditions for a ticking time bomb.
Works of fiction, such as the television series 24 , often rely on ticking time bomb scenarios for dramatic effect. According to the Parents Television Council, given that each season represents a 24-hour period, Jack Bauer encounters someone who needs torturing to reveal a ticking bomb on average 12 times per day.
Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of Homeland Security under the George W. Bush administration, declared that 24 "reflects real life." John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who produced the torture memos cited Bauer in support, while Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia went further, arguing "Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles... He saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?".In contrast, one of the shows' creators has stated:
Most terrorism experts will tell you that the ‘ticking time bomb’ situation never occurs in real life, or very rarely. But on our show it happens every week.
The show uses the same techniques that are used by the U.S. against terrorist suspects during the War on Terror. U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and others, objected to the central theme of the show—that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country’s security—as it had an adverse effect on the training of actual American soldiers by advocating unethical and illegal behavior. As Finnegan said:
The kids see it, and say, 'If torture is wrong, what about "24"?'
The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.
The "ticking time bomb scenario" is subject of the drama The Dershowitz Protocol by Canadian author Robert Fothergill. In that play, the American government has established a protocol of "intensified interrogation" for terrorist suspects which requires participation of the FBI, CIA and the Department of Justice. The drama deals with the psychological pressure and the tense triangle of competences under the overriding importance that each participant has to negotiate the actions with his conscience.
Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was a Libyan national captured in Afghanistan in November 2001 after the fall of the Taliban; he was interrogated by American and Egyptian forces. The information he gave under torture to Egyptian authorities was cited by the George W. Bush Administration in the months preceding its 2003 invasion of Iraq as evidence of a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. That information was frequently repeated by members of the Bush Administration, although reports from both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) strongly questioned its credibility, suggesting that al-Libi was "intentionally misleading" interrogators.
Torture is the deliberate infliction of severe pain or suffering on a person for reasons such as punishment, extracting a confession, interrogation for information, or intimidating third parties. Some definitions are restricted to acts carried out by the state, but others include non-state organizations.
Counterterrorism, also known as anti-terrorism, relates to the practices, military tactics, techniques, and strategies that governments, law enforcement, businesses, and intelligence agencies use to combat or eliminate terrorism.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, often known by his initials KSM, is a Pan-Islamist Pakistani terrorist and the Former Head of Propaganda for Al-Qaeda, held by the United States at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp under terrorism-related charges. He was named as "the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks" in the 2004 9/11 Commission Report.
The strappado, also known as corda, is a form of torture in which the victim's hands are tied behind his back and the victim is suspended by a rope attached to the wrists, typically resulting in dislocated shoulders. Weights may be added to the body to intensify the effect and increase the pain. This kind of torture would generally not last more than an hour without rest, as it would likely result in death.
Abd al-Rahim Hussein Muhammed Abdu al-Nashiri is a Saudi Arabian citizen alleged to be the mastermind of the bombing of USS Cole and other maritime attacks. He is alleged to have headed al-Qaeda operations in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf states prior to his capture in November 2002 by the CIA's Special Activities Division.
The prohibition of torture is a peremptory norm in public international law – meaning that it is forbidden under all circumstances – as well as being forbidden by international treaties such as the United Nations Convention Against Torture. It is generally agreed that torture is inherently morally wrong because all forms of torture "involve the intentional infliction of extreme physical suffering on some non-consenting and defenceless person", although it does not necessarily follow that torture is wrong in all circumstances. In practice, torture has been employed by many or most prisons, police and intelligence agencies throughout the world. Philosophers are divided on whether torture is forbidden under all circumstances or whether it may be justified in one-off situations, but without legalization or institutionalization.
Alan Morton Dershowitz is an American lawyer and former law professor known for his work in U.S. constitutional law and American criminal law. From 1964 to 2013, he taught at Harvard Law School, where he was appointed as the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law in 1993. Dershowitz is a regular media contributor, political commentator, and legal analyst.
The picana or picana eléctrica is a device used to give an electric shock during electrical torture.
There are cases, both documented and alleged, that involve the usage of torture by members of the United States government, military, law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies, health care services, and other public organizations both in and out of the country.
The tactics of terrorism are diverse. As important as the actual attacks is the cultivation in the target population of the fear of such attacks, so that the threat of violence becomes as effective as actual violence. The different tactics that terrorist groups utilize can be very simple to extremely complex.
The Fox Network television series 24 has won numerous Emmy Awards for its technical and artistic merits, and become part of American popular culture. Jack Bauer and David Palmer are seen as iconic television characters. It has also been heavily criticized for justifying the misuse of government authority and the use of torture, and accused of being racially insensitive.
Kyndra Kaye Rotunda is an American lawyer, author, and former officer in the United States Army Judge Advocate General's Corps . She is a law professor at the Chapman University School of Law.
Ali H. Soufan is a Lebanese-American former FBI agent who was involved in a number of high-profile anti-terrorism cases both in the United States and around the world. A 2006 New Yorker article described Soufan as coming closer than anyone to preventing the September 11 attacks and implied that he would have succeeded had the CIA been willing to share information with him. He resigned from the FBI in 2005 after publicly chastising the CIA for not sharing intelligence with him which could have prevented the attacks.
The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 (DTA) is an Act of the United States Congress that was signed into law by President George W. Bush on December 30, 2005. Offered as an amendment to a supplemental defense spending bill, it contains provisions relating to treatment of persons in custody of the Department of Defense, and administration of detainees held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, including:
Interrogational torture is the use of torture to obtain information in interrogation, as opposed to the use of torture to extract a forced confession, regardless of whether it is true or false. Torture has been used throughout history during interrogation, although it is now illegal and a violation of international law.
Torture and the Ticking Bomb is a 2007 book by Bob Brecher in which the author examines ticking time bomb scenario, provides arguments against justifying torture based on consequentialist grounds and attacks interrogational torture and its legalisation.
In Australian criminal law, reasonable and probable grounds most prominently regulates police officers as a precondition of the exercise of certain powers in their function as enforcers of the law. Based on Australian common law, it is a prerequisite of most police powers. In Canada, it is defined as the point where probability replaces suspicion based on a reasonable belief; reasonableness is a legitimate expectation in the existence of specific facts, and the belief in individual circumstances can be "reasonable without being probable." Less-clearly defined in Australia, it depends on the circumstances of a case and often involves an assessment of the circumstances of a potential crime.
Ron Hassner is a Professor of Political Science at University of California, Berkeley. He holds a Chancellor's Chair in Political Science and is the Helen Diller Family Chair in Israel Studies at Berkeley. His research focuses on religion and conflict, especially conflicts over sacred places, religion in the military, as well as on territorial disputes and interrogational torture. He is a faculty director of the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies at U.C. Berkeley. Hassner is a recipient of Berkeley's campus-wide “Distinguished Teaching Award”.
In fictional representations, torture is often portrayed as a method for obtaining information through interrogation. Unlike the real world practice of torture, fictional representations of torture are often portrayed as being professional and efficient methods of obtaining reliable information, and as selective rather than indiscriminate. Torture can be a convenient plot device to extract information, and when the hero is the torturer, it almost always works, usually quickly. Popular culture representations have an effect on how torture is practiced in the real world; United States Army interrogators as well as the staff at Guantanamo Bay have copied torture techniques that they learned from TV. Positive depictions of torture during the Algerian War of Independence helped shape the public perception of torture, a trend that continued with American media produced after the September 11 attacks.
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