Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Torture and the "Ticking Bomb" Argument

Alex Tabarrok has some interesting arguments as to why torture should be made illegal in “Torture, terrorism, and incentives.” I’d like to extend his argument:

President Bush, Dick Cheney and others who support the use of torture by the United States and its agents usually rely on the ticking time bomb argument. Sometimes torture is necessary to prevent a greater evil. I accept this argument. If my kid were kidnapped and the suspect was refusing to talk, I’d want Vic Mackey to do the questioning.

But it does not follow from the “ticking time bomb” argument that torture should be legal. The problem with making torture legal is that the government will abuse its powers. I do not trust the government, any government, to use this power responsibly. Leviathan must be heavily restrained, especially when it comes to torture.

I agree with that, and I’d like to extend the argument. The validity of the ticking bomb argument drops sharply with time. As days pass, the odds that no-one notices the disappearance of a key player in a plot drop to zero. When the disappearance is noted, the plan is either moved up or abandoned. So torture, assuming that it ever gets accurate information, could be most useful immediately after an arrest.

But the start of an interrogation, before isolation and disorientation have had a chance to wear down a suspect, is when torture is least effective. Further, the odds that you’ve gotten the wrong suspect is highest immediately after an arrest, with the least time to validate the right person has been arrested. Finally, immediately after arrest, you’re least likely to know that a suspect has knowledge that (was) of immediate import, unless you’ve caught them in an empty self-store unit stained with fuel oil.

So, as confidence that ‘this suspect could be worth the costs of torture’ goes up, the utility of that torture is dropping. I’d suggest that, as the ticking bomb argument becomes less plausable after months of captivity, penalties should be increased accordingly.