Friday, September 22, 2006
As law professor and philosopher David Luban explained in a recent article, the “ticking time bomb” example makes it seem torture is more akin to self defense, and has nothing to do with cruelty, at least in the circumstance described.
What are some of the problems with this example? First, it would be extremely rare to have both knowledge of an immediate threat, and at the same time certainty that the person in custody has the information needed to save lives. Instead, torture is used in cases where one is not sure whether the person in custody has the information, or where the “bomb” at issue does not pose an immediate catastrophe. The image of the ticking time bomb is easily expanded to justify what becomes “a more general fishing expedition for any intelligence that might be used to ‘unwind’ a terrorist organization,” Professor Luban explains.
Another problem with the “ticking time bomb” scenario is that there would seem to be no limit on who could be tortured. If the catastrophe is so great and lives are in the balance, why stop with torturing the suspect? Why not also torture his wife or her child?
“The real debate,” Professor Luban submits, “is not between one guilty man’s pain and hundreds of innocent lives. It is the debate between certainty of anguish and the mere possibility of learning something vital and saving lives.”
The “ticking time bomb” example also masks the actual practice of torture. “It assumes a single, ad hoc decision about whether to torture by officials who ordinarily would not do such a thing except in a desperate emergency,” Luban observes. Instead, the reality is that acceptance of torture at any level means that people will be trained in the techniques. “Should we create a professional cadre of trained torturers?”—Luban asks. “Do we really want to create a torture culture and the kind of people who inhabit it?” And can we trust trained torturers to decide when it should be used?
The “ticking time bomb” scenario does not reflect the real questions about torture: “questions about uncertainty, questions about the morality of consequences, questions about what it does to a culture and the torturers themselves,” Professor Luban concludes.
We may like to imagine that torture would only be used in the most extreme cases when necessary to defend ourselves from immediate and large-scale catastrophe. But in our world of uncertainty, the reality is that the acceptance of torture at any level, in any circumstance, leads to and fosters a culture of brutality, violence and fear.