The Ticking Time Bomb Lie

by Kit Winter on January 22, 2009

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The flawed moral compass of the departing administration and its apologists is nowhere more apparent than in the sinister, absurd “ticking bomb” scenario, resurrected by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) in the confirmation hearing of Attorney General nominee Eric Holder. The familiar hypothetical involves a terrorist, in government custody, who knows the location of a ticking bomb set to explode in a public place. The scenario compels its own conclusion – of course torture would be morally acceptable under such circumstances. Any objection that the scenario is so unlikely as to render the conclusion meaningless is met with the passionate insistence that one admit that under such circumstances, however unlikely, torture would be acceptable. As Justice Antonin Scalia said last spring, “seems to me you have to say, as unlikely as that is, it would be absurd to say that you can’t stick something under the fingernails.” Once one has been bullied into such an admission, conduct that would otherwise be considered obviously unacceptable, even repulsive, becomes open to calm discussion – how immediate is the hypothetical threat; how brutal is the hypothetical torture?

The “ticking bomb” scenario is not merely unlikely, though; it is impossible. It is based on flawed assumptions about the nature of knowledge itself. In particular, the scenario is based on three factual assertions that either cannot exist or, if they did exist, would obviate the need for torture. These are: 1) there is a ticking bomb set to explode in a public place 2) the prisoner knows where the bomb is and when it is set to detonate; and 3) the interrogator is able to tell, in some reliable way, when the prisoner is telling the truth.

1) “There is a ticking bomb set to explode in a public place”

We are so accustomed to the omniscient narrator that we are inclined to accept this alarming assertion at face value. Yet we would do well to inquire: how, exactly, do we know this to be the case? A moment’s reflection reveals the profound circularity of the “ticking bomb” scenario; it is predicated on the very information that it claims to require torture to reveal. If we know there is a bomb, we must also know its location – otherwise, we merely suspect there is a bomb.

2) “The prisoner knows where the bomb is and when it is set to detonate”

Our “knowledge” regarding the prisoner’s knowledge is even more attenuated and problematic than our knowledge regarding the bomb. It is a fundamental fact of human existence that we do not have direct access to the minds of others, and consequently we are left forever guessing about their motives, credibility, and reliability. Such guesses are not a proper basis upon which to deny others their basic human rights. If the prisoner denies that he has the knowledge that we seek, shall we continue torturing him until he recants that denial? If he doesn’t recant, is there a point, short of death, at which we can reliably state that more torture would be fruitless?

3) The interrogator is able to tell, in some reliable way, when the terrorist is telling the truth.

The question “would torture be morally justifiable under these circumstances” reflects a tacit, and false, assumption that torture can elicit reliable information, and that we have some way of knowing when reliable information has been elicited. This is not the case. Lie-detecting technology is unreliable, and without such technology we can never know with certainty what someone else knows. In the “ticking bomb” scenario, we cannot know that the prisoner knows where the bomb is until he has disclosed the location of the bomb and a bomb has been found at that location. The hypothetical assumes that we have achieved this level of confidence regarding the prisoner’s knowledge before the torture starts. Of course, if we had that level of confidence, torture would again be unnecessary, because that level of confidence can only be obtained by independent confirmation.

At the risk of belaboring the point, consider the following hypothetical: You come into possession of an aluminum can bearing a label indicating it contains baked beans. The can appears in all respects indistinguishable from a can of baked beans available in your local supermarket. However, you are not in your local supermarket. You are in a cave in Afghanistan, and lack access to X-Ray devices and other testing equipment. Your intelligence sources lead you to believe that the can contains biological WMD, and a paid informant has told you that I know what the can contains. You consider it imperative to learn the truth.

You commence inserting needles under my fingernails. I deny that I have any knowledge whatsoever regarding the can. You burn me with cigarettes. I say the can contains beans. You subject me to water boarding. I say the can contains anthrax.

Do you know what is in the can?

Do you know that I know what is in the can?

The answer should be self-evident: not until you open the can.

As such, what we’re really talking about when we talk about the “ticking bomb” scenario is torture, by our government, of people whom the government suspects have knowledge of a bomb that it suspects may be ticking in a place where it suspects it would kill innocent people were it to detonate. And all without the fuss of a trial. The “ticking bomb” scenario is fallacious and morally bankrupt, and it should be put to rest once and for all. Its constant repetition numbs us to the outrage we should feel at the prospect of our government sticking anything under any body’s fingernails under any circumstances. 

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