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The Ticking-Time-Bomb Argument

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A couple of points about the ticking-time-bomb argument used to promote torture:

1. As Alfred McCoy wrote in Alternet:

Number one: In the real world, the probability that a terrorist might be captured after concealing a ticking nuclear bomb in Times Square and that his captors would somehow recognize his significance is phenomenally slender. The scenario assumes a highly improbable array of variables that runs something like this:

–First, FBI or CIA agents apprehend a terrorist at the precise moment between timer’s first tick and bomb’s burst.

–Second, the interrogators somehow have sufficiently detailed foreknowledge of the plot to know they must interrogate this very person and do it right now.

–Third, these same officers, for some unexplained reason, are missing just a few critical details that only this captive can divulge.

–Fourth, the biggest leap of all, these officers with just one shot to get the information that only this captive can divulge are best advised to try torture, as if beating him is the way to assure his wholehearted cooperation.


2. A Slippery Slope. Again, according to McCoy’s article in Alternet:

Once we agree to torture the one terrorist with his hypothetical ticking bomb, then we admit a possibility, even an imperative, for torturing hundreds who might have ticking bombs or thousands who just might have some knowledge about those bombs. “You can’t know whether a person knows where the bomb is,” explains Georgetown University Law Professor David Cole, “or even if they’re telling the truth. Because of this, you end up going down a slippery slope and sanctioning torture in general.


What’s so interesting (and depressing) about the Dec 2009 Rasmussen report poll is they didn’t ask a hypothetical question such as “would you support torturing a terrorist who, authorities are sure, knows about an impending terrorist attack”. Instead Rasmussen poll asks people would they support torturing someone who might know something. So even though there is no good reason to think that the would-be Christmas day bomber knew anything of importance 58% of those polled supporting torturing him.

Fifty-eight percent (58%) of U.S. voters say waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques should be used to gain information from the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day.

The explicit argument made in “24” in support of torture is, of course, The ticking-time-bomb argument. But “24” also makes a number of implicit arguments in support of torture. Such as the idea that torture is a kind of truth serum, with enough torture, the truth will come out. Another implicit argument is the idea that authorities are so amazingly competent that it is rare indeed for them to torture an innocent bystander (such touching confidence among those who are normally so skeptical of the government). And, of course, the idea that even if the prisoners don’t know anything, they are scum, and deserve whatever happens to them (even torture). I think that it is these implicit arguments, in addition to the ticking-time-bomb argument, that helps explain the large percentage of Americans who now support torture.

See also:

’24’ Brainwashing America?

Should we waterboard Scott Roeder ?

Torture’s Ticking Time Bomb Argument



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