One issue that’s been bothering me for a long time is the use of torture. It disturbs me that it’s an issue at all. Not only is it obviously evil, it’s worthless.

There’s one popular scenario a lot of pro-torture people will bring up, often called the Ticking Time Bomb scenario: There’s a bomb about to go off, you have a suspect in custody, and allegedly the only way to stop the bomb is to torture the suspect for information. It’s never as simple as they think it is.

Frankly, that scenario is one where torture is especially unlikely to work. Let’s say the bomb is set to go off in two hours. All the terrorist has to do is grit his teeth and endure, or even better, he can pretend to crack and lie about the bomb’s location, leading the bomb squad on a wild goose chase. The terrorist’s mission is a success, the interrogator has demonstrated his panic, desperation, and willingness to abandon the principles of a just society. If the story gets out, you embolden the terrorists because you’ve shown your weakness and desperation. Some people who sympathized with the terrorists’ goals but not their methods might just decide it’s now necessary to cross the line. Let’s say you charge the terrorist in a court: You’ve already tainted the evidence. If you’re willing to torture, how can the court trust that you didn’t tamper with other evidence? In such a case, you’ve sabotaged your case and the legal process. You’ve also undermined the trust of people who know where torture leads. Torturing a suspect only aids the enemy.

Let’s decrease the time on the bomb. Nope, that only makes it easier to resist. It’s easier to endure an hour of torture than two. Let’s go the opposite route, and say that the bomb’s going to go off in 48 hours. The problem with deception still remains. A terrorist can “crack,” tell a lie, and probably catch a break every time the interrogator believes the lie. The bomb squad has to get to the fake site, search, and fail to find the bomb before the interrogator has reason to continue. Continue this long enough, and the interrogator might start disbelieving the terrorist if he does end up telling the truth.

Now let’s stretch the time to weeks. Suddenly, the urgency isn’t so great. With more time, there’s more incentive to use more humane (and effective) means of interrogation. You can grill the suspect methodically and get him to blurt out accidental hints. You can play tricks on him. You can tell him just how bad his prison sentence will be if he doesn’t cooperate and then leave him alone to contemplate his fate. You can appeal to his buried empathy and make him realize that the bomb is going to kill and maim ordinary people, not political straw men, and possibly trigger a bout of remorse.

Now, here comes what might be the most important part of this post: What if he doesn’t know? What if he’s a grunt who just runs minor errands for the terrorists? What if he was an innocent who didn’t realize his co-worker was a terrorist? That’s when the insidious side of torture comes into play: It doesn’t make people tell the truth. It makes people say whatever it takes to stop the torture. You can’t extract the truth from a person who doesn’t know it. People with great strength of will might be able to keep truthfully expressing their ignorance or innocence, but that’s not what the torturer wants to hear. The ones who can’t endure are therefore strongly encouraged to lie and tell the torturer whatever he wants to hear.

Torture encourages short-term thinking in its victims. Humans naturally prioritize getting out of an existing crisis over preventing a future one. An innocent who falsely confesses under torture is effectively denied the ability to think rationally and about the long term because he’s kept in panic mode. He isn’t thinking about being sent to prison, he’s thinking about how to stop being drowned by a waterboarding interrogator. The grunt who committed minor crimes isn’t thinking about being sentenced for planting a bomb. If the courts are corrupted or fooled into accepting a false confession, you will have ruined someone’s life for no reason other than covering your own ass.

The use of torture also has an effect on the interrogators. There’s a heavy bias towards assuming guilt as it is. Torture only serves to reinforce that bias. For an innocent suspect, a confession is almost an inevitability, and praise is heaped on the interrogator for doing his “job” of extracting confessions, when his real job is supposed to be extracting the truth.

The fact that the US is still involved in torture and that torturers are being protected by the State Secrets Privilege fills me with disgust. It’s bad enough that cops are already proficient at extracting false confessions, prosecutors have every advantage over public defenders, and politicians resist reform for the sake of being “hard on crime.” I worry that torture could become more mainstream. It’s bad enough, given what I heard about Jack Bauer.

3 responses to “Torture

  1. There was a case in Germany 10 years ago where a police threatened to torture a kidnapper who was refusing to say where his victim was hidden. That particular case (the Daschner case) is sometimes mentioned as a “ticking bomb” scenario where torture (or in this case the threat of torture) was “justified” and worked. The kidnapper was threatened with “severe pain” and immediately admitted that the victim was in fact already dead.

    On the face of it, it seemed to some that the police’s actions were understandable. But on closer inspection, it seems like there were indeed other options which were ignored.

    The victim was an 11 year old banker’s son, and the kidnapper had collected ransom money, but then not released the child. The police watched him for about a day and then arrested him when he was about to flee the country. Obviously the police wanted to find the child quickly, fearing he was imprisoned without food or water. The kidnapper (Magnus Gaefgen) obviously didn’t want to admit to murder, so was stalling. The police Lieutenant (Wolgang Daschner) decided to inform Gaefgen that he would be tortured if he didn’t say where the boy was. Gaefgen promptly admitted the murder.

    Daschner’s subordinates were opposed to the plan, and wanted to try other options, for example, allowing the victim’s family to confront Gaefgen and plead with him. It seems Daschner was a bit fixated on his plan to threaten him (there’s no suggestion he would have done it) and went through with it.

    He was later disciplined and fined, though never charged with a felony as he, strictly speaking should have been.

    The case is mentioned here as a “pro” argument for torture-

    And there are more details & arguments against it here

    I find it an interesting case. It’s probably the best real life example of a ticking bomb scenario, yet it actually shows — just like you pointed out in the post, BD — that there are always other options. And the consequences of choosing the torture option are in the long run (if not short term) unacceptable.


    Above all, even if one granted that torture might be justified in a ticking bomb scenario like the one above, such scenarios are extremely rare. Usually torture is used as a straight out weapon of general intimidation, oppression and fear. It’s usually used quite indiscriminately against entire populations who are considered to be collectively “suspect”.

    (Incidentally, Gaefgen is in prison serving a life sentence, but was awarded some damages. He also wrote a book, “Alone With God – The Way Back”, so I guess Jesus has absolved him of his sin. Luckily, the parole board hasn’t.)

  2. Actually, you’re being especially charitable to the torture advocates. The American interrogators who are committing torture today don’t stop torturing because they’re satisfied with the answer; they don’t actually ask questions in the first place. The object of torture is torture indeed.

    It’s actually quite telling that the primary form of torture is waterboarding. If gaining some sort of information from the victim were even intended as the goal, why use the one method that prevents him from speaking? A terrorist who actually planted a bomb, knows where it is, and actually wants to tell the truth still can’t tell you if he’s in the process of drowning.

    And “guy who didn’t know his co-worker was a terrorist” is probably closer to actually being a terrorist than some of the people in Guantanamo or Bagram or any of the many other secret prisons; the US pays a bounty for each captured “terrorist” so most of the people we torture are more along the lines of “guy who was grabbed off the street by some bounty hunter, sold to the US, and tortured on the bounty hunter’s word that the guy was a terrorist.” We know that “guy who has a name similar to an alias once used by a terrorist” is enough to get you kicked off an airplane (or at least subject to extra scrutiny) and I’m pretty sure there was a story of a couple British men imprisoned and tortured for the same reason, though I can’t find the cite just now.

    • Yeah, I’m being charitable, mostly to show the best case scenarios are still not in their favor. I’ve given up on trying to predict what new lows the US will sink to on the issue, so I wasn’t inclined to scrape the bottom of the barrel.

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