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irregular times logoThe Timebomb Torture:
A Twisted Ethical Justification for Torment

This year, Americans have been compelled by overwhelming evidence to accept that their government practices horrific acts of torture in their name. It has been well documented that civilian and military representatives of the American government have been sent overseas to strip people of their dignity through such methods as near-drownings under water, sexual assault, and beatings so severe that they often led to death. It's not just at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq that these practices have been discovered. Soldiers and "intelligence" agents have conducted the same kinds of torture in Afghanistan, Cuba and throughout Iraq. Top officials in the Pentagon and Bush Administration authorized methods of torture to be used worldwide.

Some of us have responded to the news of American torture by considering the policies and ideas that contributed to the widespread use of torture under George W. Bush, and taken action to combat those policies and ideas. Others have responded to the evidence of torture by pretending to become philosophers.

It's become a central piece in the talking points of the conservative commentators who try to defend the Bush Administration's decision to make torture a central part of American foreign policy: the "Ticking Time Bomb Argument". Bush's defenders refer to what they call a deep philosophical quandry about the ethics of torturing people. The supposed quandry is typically described as follows: If you hold a prisoner, and the prisoner knows the location of a hidden ticking time bomb that will soon explode and kill many people, is it ethically justified to torture the prisoner in order to get the information necessary to prevent the bomb from exploding?

Oooh, that's deep, right? We'll, we're supposed to believe that it's deep, anyway. The purpose of bringing up the Ticking Time Bomb Argument is to get Americans to believe the following two points:

  1. The question of whether or not torture is ethical is so difficult that even the worlds most brilliant minds in philosophy have been unable to provide an answer after generations of collective consideration.
  2. There are many prominent philosophers who believe that torture is ethical.

The defenders of torture don't expect everyone to agree that torture is a good idea. Their goal is merely to get opponents of torture to agree that, even though torture is unethical, it is reasonable for some people to conclude otherwise. As we listen to the commentators discuss the Bush Administration's torture programs, we hear this tactic working. "Yes," will say the human rights expert, trying to sound very wise, "these questions certainly are difficult. However, it is our position that..." "Well," says the writer from the weekly newsmagazine, trying to sound very neutral, "the ethical arguments are very challenging, and a good argument can be made that in times like these..."

Well, let me take this opportunity to say, after careful deliberation, and with due respect to the points made by the defenders of Bush's torture squads, BUNK!

The ethical issues behind the Ticking Time Bomb Argument are not really very deep at all. Any careful thinker can quickly see that the justification of torture through the appeal to an imminent threat is based upon a series of premises that, while emotionally appealing, don't hold up to critical examination.

Among the false premises of the Ticking Time Bomb Argument:

If just one of the premises above proves to be false, the torture of the prisoner will be completely without benefit. Of course, there is no way to know beforehand if any of the premises are true. When the certain suffering of torture is posed against the uncertain benefit of torture, the ethical choice is clear: Avoid the suffering that is the most certain.

What the people who exploit the Ticking Time Bomb Argument never acknowledge is that their reasoning creates a never-ending circle of violence. You see, unless we assume that the prisoner is simply insane (in which case torture probably wouldn't work anyway), the prisoner is probably alleged to be a part of a terrorist bombing plot. The thing about terrorists is that they justify their violence through the argument that their own attacks are necessary to stop the larger, even more deadly attacks of their enemies.

Does that argument sound familiar? It ought to, because it's the same argument the Bush apologists use to justify torture. Torture is, essentially, terrorism. It's the violent infliction of suffering in order to coerce someone into complying with our wishes.

So, the real Ticking Time Bomb scenario is something like this: We've got a prisoner, who claims to have laid a time bomb in order to provoke our military into stopping its attacks on his people. We, on the other hand, are preparing to torture the prisoner to stop that attack from taking place.

How about this question, then: Would it be ethically justified for someone to use a bomb to stop torture from taking place? Hm, well, that's one of the arguments that George W. Bush has used to justify his bombing of Iraqi civilians.

So, it looks like the Republicans' use of the Ticking Time Bomb Argument leads inevitably to the conclusion that the prisoner's use of the time bomb is justified by the very fact that our government is torturing people like him. Because they claim that brutality justifies brutality, the defenders of torture are also defenders of terrorism.

The only way out of this dizzying loop of circular logic is NOT to torture, and NOT to bomb, even when others torture and bomb. We have to step out of the circle, forget our own pain, and not retaliate. Like my momma used to say, if we want to stop the terrorists, we have to take our sails out of their wind.

Otherwise, we'll end up with a global-scale version of the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys, where no one really remembers who was right and who was wrong, but everyone is running for their lives. That's the road down which George W. Bush and the defenders of torture are leading us. The election this November is the last chance we have to decide whether we will follow.

It doesn't take a Doctor of Philosophy to figure out what to do.

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