The ticking time bomb

The idea that torture might be used to obtain the information necessary to avert a terrorist attack was revived in the wake of 9/11. Alan Dershowitz was a proponent. Michael Kinsley attacked the thesis in 2005.

The trouble with salami-slicing is that it doesn’t stop just because you do. A judicious trade-off of competing considerations is vulnerable to salami-slicing from both directions. You can calibrate the viciousness of the torture as finely as you like to make sure that it matches the urgency of the situation. But you can’t calibrate the torture candidate strapped down before you. Once you’re in the torture business, what justification is there for banning (as Krauthammer would) the torture of official prisoners of war, no matter how many innocent lives this might cost? If you are willing to torture a “high level” terrorist in order to save innocent lives, why should you spare a low-level terrorist at the same awful cost? What about a minor accomplice?

… In this cold, hard world, allegedly facing a challenge greater than any the civilized world has faced before, would you torture an innocent individual for five minutes in order to spare a million innocents from death? These would be wartime deaths, many of them more painful and grotesque than the laboratory torture you are sparing one lone individual. If you say yes, go ahead and torture an innocent person, you have pretty much abandoned the various exquisite moral distinctions that eased your previous abandonment of an absolute ban on torture. But if you say no, my own moral hygiene, or my country’s, forbids the torture of an innocent individual, even if the indirect but predictable consequence is a million human deaths, you are more or less back in the camp of the anti-torture absolutists whose simple-minded moral vanity you find so irritating.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder dismissed the concept when presented with a ticking time bomb hypothetical in 2009. In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death last year, Conor Freidersdorf noted the “morally corrosive slippery slope” that torture apologists found themselves on.

Pressed after QP yesterday about Vic Toews’ chosen scenario, Jack Harris ultimately dismissed the premise.

This is the mythology that’s been built around torture, that torture can be used to extract true information. In fact, it’s been proven to be and shown to be totally unreliable.

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