More enhanced logical techniques

Ethics is full of thought experiments.  The Trolley problem, for instance.  Such thought experiments allow one to articulate one's moral principles.  They do not serve, however, as definitions of morally permissible conduct.  The ticking time bomb scenario, a favorite among consumers of torture pornography, might be a useful way to think about "what we would do if. . . " But it's sheer unlikelihood makes it unhelpful as an everyday guide.  Just because it can happen, and perhaps has happened, does not mean that we structure our moral thinking around it.  This hasn't stopped Charles Krauthammer from thinking long and hard about the ticking time bomb scenario.  He writes:

This month, I wrote a column outlining two exceptions to the no-torture rule: the ticking time bomb scenario and its less extreme variant in which a high-value terrorist refuses to divulge crucial information that could save innocent lives. The column elicited protest and opposition that were, shall we say, spirited.

And occasionally stupid. Dan Froomkin, writing for washingtonpost.com and echoing a common meme among my critics, asserted that "the ticking time bomb scenario only exists in two places: On TV and in the dark fantasies of power-crazed and morally deficient authoritarians." (He later helpfully suggested that my moral deficiencies derived from "watching TV and fantasizing about being Jack Bauer.")

On Oct. 9, 1994, Israeli Cpl. Nachshon Waxman was kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists. The Israelis captured the driver of the car. He was interrogated with methods so brutal that they violated Israel's existing 1987 interrogation guidelines, which themselves were revoked in 1999 by the Israeli Supreme Court as unconscionably harsh. The Israeli prime minister who ordered this enhanced interrogation (as we now say) explained without apology: "If we'd been so careful to follow the [1987] Landau Commission [guidelines], we would never have found out where Waxman was being held."

Who was that prime minister? Yitzhak Rabin, Nobel Peace laureate. The fact that Waxman died in the rescue raid compounds the tragedy but changes nothing of Rabin's moral calculus.

That moral calculus is important. Even John McCain says that in ticking time bomb scenarios you "do what you have to do." The no-torture principle is not inviolable. One therefore has to think about what kind of transgressive interrogation might be permissible in the less pristine circumstance of the high-value terrorist who knows about less imminent attacks. (By the way, I've never seen five seconds of "24.")

That is not the point.  No one has denied the empirical possibility or even the actuality of the ticking time bomb scenario.  Not even Froomkin obviously.  Besides, to counter that Krauthammer offers up something that doesn't include a bomb or lives in imminent danger, but rather a straightforward hostage situation (in which the rescue attempt killed the hostage–negotiation anyone?).  Those terrorists in Krauthammer's example do not take hostages to kill them–they take them to trade them for stuff.

In the second place, as someone else has noted, Krauthammer had a month to come up with an example which would overcome Froomkin's objection.  And this non-ticking-time-bomb scenario from 1994 is all he could find. 

More importantly, he ought to measure the one time when torture provides the precise code and location of the ticking bomb versus the mountains of disinformation torture usually yields.  How many examples of that can we find?

3 thoughts on “More enhanced logical techniques”

  1. This reminds me of that moral question: Is it ever right to do the something wrong?
    I think there are times when you have two choose between 2 wrongs … but these scenarios that Krauthammer comes up with, are just ludicrous.

  2. The “enhance integration techniques” of the current administration† were applied in the “less extreme scenario”.† We are told that these techniques “worked”, but the government can’t explain in detail because it’s top secret.† If† Khalid Sheikh Mohammed provided details that allowed us to foil a terrorist attack, releasing some more information would not be a security risk. Details of past crimes are not a security risk.

    Who was captured as a result of his testimony? What specific plots were foiled? I’ve heard about the second 9/11 in LA, but I’ve also heard that it was foiled before KSM was in custody.

    Even is they can backup their assertion that torture worked, I still don’t think it’s acceptable.† If another country kidnapped and tortured American citizens who were suspected terrorists, I wonder how many Americans would find that acceptable.

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