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The ticking time bomb scenario is a thought experiment that has been used in the ethics debate over whether torture can ever be justified.

Simply stated, the consequentialist argument is that nations, even those such as the United States that legally disallow torture, can justify its use if they have a terrorist in custody who possesses critical knowledge, such as the location of a time bomb or a weapon of mass destruction that will soon explode and cause great loss of life. Opponents to the argument usually begin by exposing certain assumptions that tend to be hidden by initial presentations of the scenario (which otherwise tend to obscure the true costs of permitting torture in such circumstances), and rely on legal, philosophical/moral, and empirical grounds to reaffirm the need for the absolute prohibition of torture.


The concept was first introduced during the 1960s in the novel Les Centurions by Jean Lartéguy which is set during the First Indochina War. According to Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College, the possibility of sudden, massive destruction of innocent life provided French liberals with a more acceptable justification for committing torture.[1]

Views in favor of accepting torture in emergencies

Alan Dershowitz, a prominent American defense attorney, surprised some observers by giving limited support to the idea that torture could be justified. He argued that human nature can lead to unregulated abuse "off the books". Therefore, it would be better if there were a regulated procedure through which an interrogator could request a "torture warrant", and that requiring a warrant would establish a paper trail of accountability. Torturers, and those who authorize torture, could be held to account for excesses. Dershowitz's suggested torture warrants, similar to search warrants and phone tap warrants, would spell out the limits on the techniques that interrogators may use, and the extent to which they may abridge a suspect's rights.

When reviewing Alan Dershowitz's book, Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge, Richard Posner, a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, wrote in The New Republic, September 2002 that

If torture is the only means of obtaining the information necessary to prevent the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Times Square, torture should be used - and will be used - to obtain the information. ... no one who doubts that this is the case should be in a position of responsibility.[2][3]

Views in favor of torturing the relatives of suspects

In February 2010 Bruce Anderson wrote a column for The Independent, arguing that the British government would have not just the right, but the duty, to torture if there was a ticking bomb, and that they should torture the relatives of suspects if they believed that doing so would yield information that would avert a terrorist attack:

It came, in the form of a devilish intellectual challenge. "Let's take your hypothesis a bit further. We have captured a terrorist, but he is a hardened character. We cannot be certain that he will crack in time. We have also captured his wife and children". After much agonising, I have come to the conclusion that there is only one answer to Sydney's question. Torture the wife and children.[4]

Views rejecting torture under all circumstances

Some human rights organizations, professional and academic experts, and military and intelligence leaders have absolutely rejected the idea that torture is ever legal or acceptable, even in a so-called ticking bomb situation.[1][5] They have expressed grave concern about the way the dramatic force and artificially simple moral answers the ticking bomb thought-experiment seems to offer, have manipulated and distorted the legal and moral perceptions, reasoning and judgment of both the general population and military and law enforcement officials. They reject the proposition, implicit or explicit, that certain acts of torture are justifiable, even desirable. They believe that simplistic responses to the scenario may lead well-intentioned societies down a slippery slope to legalised and systematic torture. They point out that no evidence of any real-life situation meeting all the criteria to constitute a pure ticking bomb scenario has ever been presented to the public, and that such a situation is highly unlikely.[6]

As well, torture can be criticised as a poor vehicle for discovering truth, as people experiencing torture, once broken, are liable to make anything up in order to stop the pain and can become unable to tell the difference between fact and fiction under intense psychological pressure. Additionally, since the terrorist presumably knows that the timer is ticking, he has an excellent reason to lie and give false information under torture in order to misdirect his interrogators; merely giving a convincing answer which the investigators will waste time checking out makes it more likely that the bomb will go off, and of course once the bomb has gone off not only has the terrorist won, but there is also no further point torturing him. A good critique of Dershowitz's argument can be found in Torture and the Ticking Bomb by Bob Brecher.

Others point out that the ticking-bomb torture proponents adopt an extremely short-term view, which impoverishes their consequentialism. Using torture—or even declaring that one is prepared to accept its use—makes other groups of people much more likely to use torture themselves in the long run. The consequence is likely to be a long-term increase in violence. This long-term effect is so serious that the person making the torture decision cannot possibly (according to this argument) make a reasonable estimate of its results. Thus the decision-maker has no grounds for certainty that the value of the lives saved from the ticking bomb will outweigh the value of the lives lost because of the subsequent disorder. She or he cannot arrive at a successful accounting of consequences.

This anti-torture argument, in fact, works by positing that human knowledge has intrinsic limits. An analogous argument holds that human decision-makers are fundamentally prone in certain situations to believe that their judgment is better than it is, and that, to be ethical, they must pre-commit themselves to a particular course of action in those situations. Knowing that, under stress, they will never be able to accurately assess the likely success of torture in obtaining information needed to prevent an attack, humans thus pre-commit to not torture. In general, this family of arguments faults the "ticking-bomb" scenario for implicitly including an incorrect presumption that the decision-maker can know in advance the outcome of torture, either in the short run (likelihood that it will prevent an attack) or the long run (likelihood that it will not set off a general increase in human violence.) If this presumption is always wrong, then the scenario is always misleading.

Effect of fiction

Works of fiction, such as the television series 24, often rely on ticking time bomb scenarios for dramatic effect. According to the Parents Television Council, given that each season represents a 24-hour period, Jack Bauer encounters someone who needs torturing to reveal a ticking bomb on average 12 times per day.[7]

Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security Chief under Bush, declared that 24 "reflects real life", John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who produced the torture memos cited Bauer in support while Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia went farther, "Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles... He saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?".[7] One of the shows' creators stated:

“Most terrorism experts will tell you that the ‘ticking time bomb’ situation never occurs in real life, or very rarely. But on our show it happens every week.”[1]

The show uses the same techniques that are used by the US against alleged Al-Qaeda suspects. U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and others, objected to the central theme of the show—that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country’s security—as it had an adverse effect on the training of actual American soldiers by advocating unethical and illegal behavior. As Finnegan said:

“The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about “24”?’ ”

He continued,

“The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”[1]

Joe Navarro, one of the F.B.I.’s top experts in questioning techniques, told The New Yorker,

“Only a psychopath can torture and be unaffected. You don’t want people like that in your organization. They are untrustworthy, and tend to have grotesque other problems.”[1][8]

The "ticking time bomb scenario" is subject of the drama The Dershowitz Protocol by Canadian author Robert Fothergill. In that play, the American government has established a protocol of "intensified interrogation" for terrorist suspects which requires participation of the FBI, CIA and the Department of Justice. The drama deals with the psychological pressure and the tense triangle of competences under the overriding importance that each participant has to negotiate the actions with his conscience.

See also

In fiction


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Mayer, Jane (February 12, 2007). "Whatever it takes. The politics of the man behind “24.”". The New Yorker. Archived from the original on 2012-09-04. Retrieved 2009-09-28.
  2. Michael Slackman What's Wrong With Torturing a Qaeda Higher-Up?, New York Times 16 May 2004
  3. Philip Hensher Hollywood is helping us learn to love torture, The Independent, 26 June 2007
  4. We not only have a right to use torture. We have a duty, Bruce Anderson, The Independent, 16 February 2010
  5. Defusing the Ticking Bomb Scenario: Why we must say No to torture, Always, Association for the Prevention of Torture, September 2007
  6. Interviewed on Face the Nation in May 2009, former Vice President Dick Cheney cited CIA memos that gave two examples supporting the use of EITs in a ticking bomb scenario. That the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah prevented a plot to detonate a dirty bomb in Washington DC and similarly that information forced from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed prevented an attack on Los Angeles. These claims were later repeated in August 2009 during a FOX news interview and are still cited as valid examples. However, in 2008 the claims made in the 2007 CIA memos were investigated by the DoJ's Office of Professional Responsibility and heavily criticized. The DoJ report, released in February 2009, stated that Zubaydah had supplied the information before he was tortured and that no further credible information had been obtained from the torture itself. In the case of Mohammed, the attack on Los Angeles had already been exposed before his capture and his admissions under torture were little more than white noise given to end it.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Lithwick, Dahlia (July 26, 2008). "The Fiction Behind Torture Policy". Newsweek.
  8. Rejecting use of torture in TV shows
  • Du bon usage de la torture, ou comment les démocraties justifient l'injustifiable, Michel Terestchenko, La Découverte, 2008. ISBN 9782707149831

External links

de:Rettungsfolter he:פצצה מתקתקת zh:定时炸弹 (实验)

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