In international law there are two absolute forbidden acts: genocide, and torture. However, the way academia approaches the two issues is strikingly different. Genocide is taught as an absolute wrong: that it is an act of ultimate evil is not remotely questioned. Torture, on the other hand, is the complete opposite: the evil of the act is the very thing up for discussion.

Picture courtesy of Keith Ivey, © 2008, some rights reserved.

Picture courtesy of Keith Ivey, © 2008, some rights reserved.

The debate over torture – both publically and academically – has revolved around the issue of the ‘ticking bomb scenario’. Indeed, every time I have had this discussion in class in St Andrews, the very first question posed is whether it is morally right to torture a terrorist in order to save an indeterminate number of lives. What I want to do in this article is to argue that the very act of posing the ‘ticking bomb scenario’ as a legitimate ethical dilemma is itself ethically questionable.

The ‘ticking bomb scenario’ is curious in that it dominates debate on an issue without having a shred of evidence to back it up. To put it simply: no proponent of torture has, to my knowledge, ever presented a genuine ‘ticking bomb case’. It is noticeable how the debate revolves around ifs: what if we know about an attack beforehand and torture could stop it; what if there was a nuclear weapon in Times Square…

Of course, there have been attempts to do so. Probably the most famous voice in the debate, Alan Dershowitz, looks at a case where torture was used against a ‘terrorist’, and produced “lifesaving information” after beating him for “sixty-seven days”.[1] The ticker on the bomb must have been faulty. Similarly, Israeli human rights group B’Tselem acerbically noted that:

‘“Intensive interrogation,” then, is rather peculiar. The lethal bomb ticks away during the week, ceases, miraculously, on the weekend, and begins to tick again when the interrogators return from their day of rest.’[2]

The lack of evidence supporters have been able to provide for the ‘ticking bomb scenario’ betrays the fact that it is purely a hypothetical thought experiment, designed to create debate between philosophical positions. Thus in ivory towers, bearded philosophers will discuss whether Kant’s categorical imperative prevents torture even in extremis, while consequentialists try to decipher whether torture would create a ‘greater good’. All of which would be fine, except this debate is not happening between obscure intellectuals, but in public life.

Imagine if, in a tutorial on the Holocaust, or the Rwandan genocide, the tutor posed a scenario whereby one member of an ethnic group carried a disease that would wipe out all human life. Thus you would be posed with a dilemma of killing the person (in effect committing genocide), or allowing humanity to be wiped out. After this, they would then ask you whether you considered genocide legitimate or not. As with the ‘ticking bomb scenario’, a large number of people will doubtless conclude that genocide is acceptable in this case. However the crucial point is that even if in this philosophical scenario one can justify genocide, the scenario poses not the faintest semblance to reality and we should not take real life lessons from it.

Contrary to the ‘ticking bomb scenario’, torture is rarely, if ever, carried out as an isolated event. Even liberal democracies, which are surely the states best equipped to resist the temptation to torture, have systemised the practice. It is tempting to see the use of torture by the United States as something resulting from a post-9/11 fear, but the very tortures used in Guantanamo et al. can be traced back directly to CIA experiments in the early Cold War.[3] Guantanamo and other black sites became part of a system of torture. Similarly Israel has systematically tortured thousands of Palestinians in the past decades.

However, the problem is that the ‘ticking bomb scenario’ poses as a justification for a system of torture, even if the scenario has nothing to do with that. The standard tract on torture goes something like this: torture as a system is wrong, and it should never be done, but in extremis torture is legitimate in the ‘ticking bomb scenario’. This argument, by removing the absolute prohibition on torture, if only for a philosophical scenario, itself serves as a justification for the system of torture (i.e. accepting that torture can be legitimate means the only policy question resulting is when it may be used).

A major debate in academia is the responsibility intellectuals have to the world. The two poles range from the belief that intellectuals are removed from society, and bear no responsibility for the consequences of what they say, to the view that intellectuals have a responsibility to the world, and should look to have a positive influence on it. One does not have to subscribe fully to the arguments of Noam Chomsky to recognise that actions have consequences, and what is said in academia, in public life, has an effect on the real world.

With this in mind, recalling the toxic effect the ‘ticking bomb scenario’ has in the real world, one can come to the conclusion that the ‘ticking bomb scenario’ is itself unethical. Its predominant position in the debates surrounding torture has warped the debate away from the empirical – where the arguments against torture are overwhelming – and into the realm of fantasy. When real life decisions are being influenced by fantasy, the debate needs to change.



[1] Alan Dershowitz, Why terrorism works: understanding the threat, responding to the challenge (New Haven, CT, 2002) p. 137

[2] B’Tselem, Routine torture: interrogation methods of the General Security Service (Jerusalem, 1998)

[3] Alfred McCoy, A question of torture. (New York, NY, 2006)