Monday, December 19, 2005


[This is an abridged version of an argument written by Andrew Sullivan and published by TNR. It appears here.]

The pro-torture crowd loves the ticking-time-bomb hypo. It goes something like this:

If you hold a prisoner, and the prisoner knows the location of a hidden ticking time bomb that will soon explode and kill many people, is it ethically justified to torture the prisoner in order to get the information necessary to prevent the bomb from exploding?

In practice, of course, the likelihood of such a scenario is extraordinarily remote. Uncovering a terrorist plot is hard enough; capturing a conspirator involved in that plot is even harder; and realizing in advance that the person knows the whereabouts of the bomb is nearly impossible. But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that all conditions apply. Do we have a right to torture our hypothetical detainee?

According to the pro-torture people, of course we do. But they are making several mistakes.

First, they fail to realize is this isn't an either/or situation. Torture isn't the only way to determine the bomb's location. The Army Field Manual lists 17 other appraoches for gaining intelligence from detainees : Isolation, psychological disorientation, intense questioning, and any number of other creative techniques are possible. There's no reason to rely on torture.

Their second mistake is presuming that a general rule can be established based on a rare case. Even if we were to concede that torture may be justified in rare and extraordinary instances, it does not follow that torture is justified in other cases. Pro-torture people don't seem to understand that its possible set aside one rare and unlikely exception when torture would be used, without also legalizing it across the boards.

And even those who use torture in the very rare care when it might be needed to protect us from catastrophe should be subjected to the consequence of an illigal act. They must be punished --or pardoned ex-post-facto. If the torture is revealed to be useless, if the tortured man is shown to have been innocent or ignorant of the information he was tortured to reveal, then those responsible must face the full brunt of the law. This is the clear, bright line between a free country and an unfree one.