Monday, February 04, 2013

The Ticking Time bomb and the Terrorist
An example of a Forced Hypothetical

Ticking Clock

Since 9/11 there has been resurgence in the use of torture by states and along with that resurgence in the attempts to justify it.

Since 9/11 the USA has been engaged in an open ended war on terror which has served as a useful excuse to justify abridging the American Bill of Rights and excusing massive state surveillance of US and other citizens.1

During this it was discovered that by those in search of quick solutions to complex problems that the various UN conventions that outlawed torture were impediments in the way of getting what were perceived as quick results. So the various UN conventions that prohibited torture were tossed out.

Rather than admit that they were using torture on a mass scale the term was redefined a la Orwell has “enhanced interrogation methods”, i.e., torture. And we got certain “useful idiots” who denied that, for example, water boarding was in fact torture. Now there are those who praise these methods and desire them to continue. Thus we get Hannity and Hitchens saying that what has been regarded as torture for centuries is not in fact torture.2

The foundations of the arguments for these techniques are quite simple.

1, It is us Americans doing this so by definition it is right.

2, We are doing it to sub-human terrorist scum who deserve it and aren’t even really human.

3, It is completely justified to get information.

4, Of course if it is done to us Americans it is of course never justified. Well because we’re Americans damn it!!

The arguments used to justify torture are nothing more than dressing up the patently absurd, jingoistic articles of faith outlined above. Thus not only did we get Americans involved in mass torture but “extraordinary rendition” was used to ship people to friendly regimes in the knowledge that said regimes would torture the person(s) and then share the resulting information with the Americans.3

Rather than be honest about the “real” reasons, as outlined above for torture, various hypotheticals are used to justify torture.

Most of these justifications employ two routes to the desired result of justifying torture. The first is a fantasy story that sets up an extreme situation that forces the reader, unless he / she is a rigid moral absolutist to accept that torture is justified in the hypothetical situation outlined.

I am referring to the infamous ticking time bomb scenario.

The scenario is usually has follows. There is a bomb that we know will go off in say 6 hours. We do not know the location. We have in custody a terrorist or just someone who knows the location of the device. He is not talking. In order to save people’s lives we have to do something to get that information. Conventional methods of interrogation will take too much time. So in desperation don’t we have to torture to get the information so that we can save people’s lives?

Note that this is a familiar rhetorical trope that is so crafted so has to force the desired solution on the reader or the person being confronted with the hypothetical. The desired solution is to approve of torture.

Hypotheticals like this are always a trap because it is always possible to think up a situation in which a gruesomely immoral act becomes the "right" thing to do. It’s a nice game but generally a game. Like the pointless debate about torturing a terrorist and the ticking time bomb mentioned above. Finding a way to justify torture by conjuring up an extremely unlikely hypothetical in which the answer is virtually forced on you and it assumes perfect knowledge. This hypothetical is similar to putting a gun to someone’s head and threatening to kill them if they don't do X. 

This reminds me of Sophie's Choice were Sophie is forced to choose in a death camp which one of her children lives and which one dies. Oh and if she doesn't choose one both will die. To me the responsibility for Sophie's decision rests on the person who gave her such an awful choice to make.

Another example is if aliens gave you the choice between killing every living human being and letting 2 million girls get raped. The answer is practically forced on you by the very extreme nature of the choice.

So frankly the moral problem is not with the person facing the choice between raping 2 million girls and 6 billion deaths, but with the persons who put such a choice to that person.

The moral problem is with the person who is forcing you to make choices like the two above. Your moral conundrum is not that large. Thus hypotheticals prove nothing except that one can always think of exceptions to virtually any rule.

However the terrorist ticking bomb faces a similar problem to the two hypotheticals above, both are very extreme cases. One is pure fantasy and the other is can only arise in a situation as extreme has a death camp.

In other words the ticking time bomb scenario is extremely unlikely to arise in everyday life. It is unlikely that the authorities will know when a bomb is due to explode or that they will know for sure that someone has the knowledge of were the bomb is. It is likely that we will torture someone who does not know where the bomb is. The most fanatical terrorist assuming they know when the bomb is going off will likely spin things out until the bomb explodes. Send people on wild goose chases etc. It is likely that torture will do nothing more than generate a lot of useless foggy information, generated by people who simply want to tell the torturers what they think the torturers want to hear.4

Torture is not a very reliable tool for getting good information. But then the real purpose of this extreme scenario which is extremely unlikely to arise in real life is not to justify torture under those extreme circumstances but to provide a general reason to allow torture. In other words to provide a justification for torture for other reasons.

The purpose is to create a slippery slope to allow torture to become routine for all sorts of reasons. 

Thus people like Alan Dershowitz and Sam Harris serve has useful idiots in the process of justifying routine torture. They ignore that it is extremely unlikely that if the extreme circumstances of the ticking time bomb with near perfect knowledge that someone in custody did in fact know where the bomb was, that that person would not in fact be tortured, abused etc., to get that knowledge. As such it requires no other justification.5

The point of theoretical hypothetical arguments for torture is to make torture for other reasons easier to justify. Thus the point of these theoretical hypotheticals is not to outline extreme cases were torture can be justified but to make torture acceptable.

And of course both Alan Dershowitz and Sam Harris have produced much that indicates that they both dehumanize and demonize the terrorist enemy. The fact that routine use of torture also serves to create terrorists out of those who now want revenge seems to escape them. But then in the Manichean world created by this view of the struggle with the enemy any and all means can be used.

Of course given how Americans for decades considered water boarding torture and how they reacted to American POWs being tortured by the North Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese justified abusing American pilots on the idea that it elicited information to minimize civilian casualties in air attacks. And of course American pilots were viewed as basically war criminals.6

One can say that it is all too likely that the American use of torture in the war on terror, aside from being a betrayal of American ideals as set up a precedent for other powers to treat American prisoners in the future.

The morally corrosive effect of all this on the American political system is rather obvious. It has in effect made many Americans war criminals and guilty of crimes against humanity. Aside from violating numerous UN conventions.

Those who promote the ticking time bomb scenario have served the very useful purpose of providing a fig leaf of justification for this moral corruption and as such they should be ashamed. 

1. See ACLU website at Here.  

2. For Hannity see NewsHounds Here, for Hitchens see One in Frame Here.

3. Extraordinary Rendition, Wikipedia Here.

4. See Edwards, Peter, Torture, Basil Blackwell Inc., New York, 1985.

5. See, Dershowitz, Alan, The Case for Torture Warrants, Here, Harris, Sam, The End of Faith, W,W. Norton, New York, 2005,  pp. 170-202.

6. Among a large literature see Risner, Robinson, The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese, Konecky & Konecky, New York, 2004.

Pierre Cloutier

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