It’s the 7thJuly 2012. In the past few days, you, in your role as an Intelligence Officer at MI5, have become aware of a plot to blow a plane up over the skies of London with a surface to air missile. The perpetrators want to show the world that they do not need to board a plane to destroy it and that they are capable of striking at the heart of every and any Western country. Not only will all passengers and crew perish should the attack proceed, but the remnants of the aircraft falling to the ground over central London will undoubtedly cause mass hysteria and further casualties. This is of course aside from the nightmarish images that will be broadcast instantly around the world instilling fear and apprehension into the minds of many.
The plot was uncovered following covert reconnaissance on a suspect who has now been detained. Interviews have proved unsuccessful, all attempts at trickery, plea bargaining and psychological techniques have been used and failed. The only way to stop this attack is to use more forceful methods to extract the required information. Should you commit torture?
The ticking bomb scenario is a challenge to views held by most liberal democratic nations: torture is always wrong in any and all circumstances. The scenario fabricates a simple theoretical situation whereby torture appears the ‘right’ and ‘reasonable’ thing to do. In order to do this the writer must declare the truth of a mass of information which would be impossible to know in a much more complex political reality. She must know that the missile will be launched, that the launch will be a success, the plane will be hit and all passengers will die, the suspect is definitely the perpetrator and the torture would be successful in releasing important information. If just one piece of information in the above list is inaccurate, our confidence in our choice to torture as ‘right’ and ‘reasonable’ is cast into doubt. By using a simple theoretical method to explain a political situation we become so abstracted from a much more complex reality that we are able to make choices which appear black or white; right or wrong. When we start to sketch in the reality of situations like these we start to find the type of political greyness that give rise to all questions of morality and ethics in the first place. For example, if we consider that the human being of which we choose to torture is in fact innocent and has been wrongly accused and that she may lie in order to end the violence being inflicted upon her are we still confident that torture is ‘right’ and ‘reasonable’. The scenario is always misleading to the extent it paves over the complex political reality where these factors play a crucial part.
Secondly, the ticking bomb scenario is an attempt to establish a universal political circumstance where we can argue that the ethical thing to do is to torture. That, even as liberal democrats who otherwise avoid violence in political life, we are happy to follow this line of action and still feel content that we have acted within the guidelines of liberal morality. The issue with this is that the ticking bomb scenario is never universal; it is always politically biased and always to the loyalties of the West (we are the audience). The fact that London is the location and that the lives of innocents are at risk is not coincidental. Neither is the fact that the attack is an affront on ‘Western values’. We are immediately aware of which side we lie and we are silently coerced into believing the suspected attacker is immoral and wrong. For the scenario to be ethically universal we would be able to change the suspected perpetrators and victims to any particular group and it would still appear ‘right’ and ‘reasonable’. For example, if the situation was that the British Army was launching an Air Missile targeted at an area with a high concentration of Taliban members would we still agree that it is ethical for the Taliban to torture a British solider to release information in order to prevent the attack? If you are loyal to the British Army or anti-Taliban then I imagine there might be much more of a problem. The differentiation arises purely from the political loyalties we have. The ticking bomb scenario plays on our particular bias rather than providing a universal moral code of which would overcome particularity.
I pondered various avenues whilst contemplating how to demonstrate that torture in this situation is both appropriate and moral and thought I would start off with a trip down Sensationalist Hill. Whilst something of this substance is more likely to be found in such ——– [I have been edited]as the Daily Mail, it is unfortunately a fairly logical argument. Would you have tortured Mohammad Sidique Khan if you had captured him before London was attacked? Would you have made one man suffer for a few hours in an attempt to save lives? Or would you have sat squalidly in your ‘principles’ and allowed the innocent to perish? Four bombs detonated on the July 7 2005 killing 52 people. What would you have done if you had an opportunity to change the outcome?
Secondly I consider the famed Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz. He has argued that torture should be legalised because in a ticking bomb scenario the government would undoubtedly use torture in order to save lives (even in the knowledge that it would then become subject to a lawsuit). Dershowitz argues that should we legalise torture, we can then ensure that it is carried out according to codes of practice, in as humane a process as is possible. For if torture is not legalised, then when governments are placed in a situation as has been given the terrorist will be subject to fairly horrendous methods of information extraction.
If torture is … used in an actual ticking bomb terrorist case, would it be normatively better or worse to have such torture regulated by some kind of warrant, with accountability, record-keeping, standards and limitations?
And Dershowitz is a liberal.
Of course the preceding paragraph doesn’t answer as to whether you should commit torture. It states that you would commit torture (if of course you are a government agent as per the scenario we have been given). So maybe I should return to whether it is moral or appropriate to commit torture in this specific example. Let’s start with what we have been told.
1) The plot was uncovered through the suspect (let’s call him ‘Abe’)
2) Abe is somehow affiliated with the plot and is in possession of information that would aid the investigation
3) Should the attack be successful many lives would be directly lost, the UK economy would suffer tremendously and the already-suffering world economy would feel the after-effects.
4) Abe is refusing to help the investigation
Thus we can affirm that Abe is quite happy to withhold information (that he definitely possesses) that could prevent a mass murder of innocent people. Do the numbers not tell us that he should most definitely be tortured, or am I barking up the completely wrong tree?