The Lie of the Ticking Time Bomb


Andrew Sullivan continues to fight the good fight against torture, but I think one thing he still struggles to refute is the Ticking Time Bomb scenario.  If war is the last refuge of the incompetent, the Ticking Time Bomb is the last refuge of the torturer.  This scenario is imagined in myriad ways, but they all boil down to this: if we don’t allow torture, a terrorist with knowledge of a ticking time bomb in a nursery school will  just laugh at us until the kids die.  This is nonsense on many levels.

The argument by Andrew, Josh Marshall and many others is that this scenario is vanishingly rare and doesn’t justify a generalized policy of torture.  However, the pro-torturers (and to some extent, my) immediate reaction is “but what if?”.  I believe the answer to that is pretty straight forward.  Let’s say torture was illegal, as it had been for 220 years .  And let’s say the Joe the FBI agent captures a suspect in circumstances so incriminating he is certain the perp has knowledge of the ticking time bomb.  He tries everything and can’t make him talk, so finally he puts the guys fingers in a vise and tortures him until he gets the information.  Was he wrong?  I don’t think so.  In a similar circumstance, I hope I would have the guts to do the same.  OK, what happens next?  Torture is against the law.  He saved the children, or even if he is too late he certainly tried.  What happens to him?

Well, let’s assume we had a prosecutor willing to charge him.  And a jury willing to convict him.  I sure as hell hope we would have a president willing to pardon him.  And, yes, it does suck that he would have to go through all that before putting it behind him, but it is sure as hell better than setting up secret (or even public) torture protocols.  Secret torture protocols is the Soviet Union.  Chile. Argentina.  Red China.  North Korea.  NOT America.

To maintain that the choice is between legalizing torture or letting the kiddies die is nonsense.  The judicial system allows for extenuating circumstances.  It’s why we have juries.  And even if that fails, we have executive pardons. But Bush, Cheney and Company could never let the judicial system pass judgement on what they have done.  Because a jury, presented with some guy picked up off an Afghani street by a business rival and sold for $5000 to American Special Forces, then brought to Guantanamo and tortured for years, driven insane, would convict every last person in the chain of command.  And they should.  This is America.


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