Stop me if you've heard this one before. There was this ticking bomb...

Can you hear that sound? Listen. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick ... You know what that is, don't you? It’s an explosive device with a timer and it’s counting down to its detonation. When it explodes - in less than an hour’s time - it’s likely to kill hundreds of people.

No, make that thousands, because I’ve just remembered that’s it’s a “dirty bomb”, made with plutonium stolen from a top-secret military facility. And the bomb is somewhere right in the middle of the busiest part of ... er, yes that’s it, right in the middle of Manhattan in New York and there’s not enough time to evacuate the entire area. Thousands of innocent people - men, women and children - are going to die and the terrorist that the police have managed to capture is refusing to tell them where the bomb is.

So, heard this one before? I’d hazard a guess that you have. It’s the famous “ticking bomb” scenario. A well-worn piece of stage-setting wheeled out of the wings every few months by pundits who use it to make the argument that torture - though bad and unjustifiable most of the time - is, regrettably, sometimes necessary. Those favouring the ticking bomb set-up like to call themselves “hard-headed realists” - they’re just trying to save lives they say, but on the contrary I think they’re actually fantasists or even cynics deliberately using this contrivance to justify the unjustifiable.

Hey, the clock’s ticking so let’s get to the point! The whole thing’s basically a philosophical con-trick. But it’s a superficially persuasive one and the argument keeps getting used. If you actually spend a bit of time thinking through just how implausible and shoddy the whole thought exercise is it disappears in a puff of smoke. The main problem, as the academic Bob Brecher points out in his excellent book on the subject, is that the ticking bomb scenario makes a whole series of interlocking assumptions. Many of these are huge leaps indeed. So for instance you need to assume:

(1) That there IS a bomb, (2) that it IS primed to go off, (3) that it WILL kill large numbers of people, (4) that there IS time to defuse it, (5) that defusing it DOES rely on getting information out of someone, (6) that there IS time to get that information and act on it, (7) that the person apprehended IS the person with the vital information, (8) that that person WILL offer up the needed information if tortured.

The ticking bomb crowd tend to ignore the dangers of acting on these multiple assumptions.  One obvious danger is that torture is allowed in a case that appears to fit the scenario “perfectly” but actually turns out not to. It’s too late, you’ve already tortured that person, all to no avail. Then there’s the slippery slope toward semi-regularised torture, where one case of “permissible” torture leads to others where the fit with the ticking bomb scenario is not quite as good but the prospect of “actionable” intelligence is still there. Then there’s the question of how many would-be terrorists are likely to be made into actual terrorists when it becomes known that torture is being used against people they sympathise with.

Brecher sums up the dangerous looseness of the whole ticking bomb mind-set:

“Despite claiming the ‘realist’ high ground, those arguments are firmly rooted in fantasy. And while ... hard cases make bad law, fantasy makes for something far worse.”

Hang on! I was forgetting. There’s hardly any time left on the timer, it’s about to blow! OK, I'll cut to the chase. The ticking bomb scenario is a fantasy, a pro-torturer’s wet dream, a debased device to indulge in sadistic desires. Unsurprisingly, in this convenient fiction the sheer horrible-ness of deliberately inflicting pain and suffering on another human being - in all its disgusting, sweat- and blood-drenched reality - is just skipped over by the ticking bomb fans. They can’t really deal with it, or don’t want to.

In the end it’s the all-too-familiar reality of torture and not the freakish un-reality of a wildly contrived scenario that we should be focusing on. The reality of being wrapped in thick plastic in Mexico so that the military torturers can carry on beating you with less chance of there being incriminating bruising. The reality of having a mop shoved in your mouth by the police in the Philippines. Or of having electricity applied to your testicles in Morocco. Or having your fingernails pulled out with pliers in Nigeria. There are hundreds - thousands - of other examples, all very workaday instances of actual torture, none of which involved convoluted justifications by the authorities.

Quite contrary to the claims of the ticking bomb acolytes, torture is not something that governments are somehow “denying themselves” in the fight against terrorism or other criminals. Instead, as Amnesty confirms, torture is actually “flourishing” in the modern world. The last thing we need is people coming up with exotic ways to justify it.

Oh no. Do you hear that? We’re out of time. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick ... aaaagggghh! Oh. I've woken up. It was all a weird dream. Something about a ticking bomb and a terrorist. Instead, it’s just me, still here in this cell about to be interrogated again. And here they come down the corridor. And they’ve got wooden clubs. Oh god ...

*Amnesty campaigners will be holding a demonstration outside the Mexican embassy in central London at lunchtime this Thursday, which is the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Details here

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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