Thursday, 10 July 2014

The ticking bomb

Apparently an academic called John McCullough has published a book on the TV series 24 and its politics. The review in the TLS says it 'popularized - even mythicized - the idea of the "ticking bomb", the short-term emergency during which any measure was legitimate.'

I must say, it always struck me that the Bush administration's use of the ticking bomb scenario could only come from fiction. And not just because that administration had a worryingly slender grasp on reality.

Government agents, according to the scenario, would only use torture as a last resort. At the start of the War on Terror, for instance, the situation was desperate and much better methods (i.e. human intelligence) were unavailable. The ticking bomb scenario, however, presupposes that the spooks already have intelligence data telling them there is a bomb somewhere, and that the person in custody knows about that bomb. Further, they have arrived at this critical juncture in their investigation by successful use of non-violent investigative methods. 

Therefore, far from being a 'last resort' measure, the ticking bomb scenario is premised on the security services being in a fairly advantageous position – they know quite a lot already and have reliable sources of information. In fact, if the intelligence services are doing their job so well already, they surely would not need to use torture, given that it is a notoriously unreliable method that might yield false leads ('I'll tell you anything if you make it stop') or outdated ones ('my comrades changed their plans the minute they knew I'd been arrested'). 

So, if the spies have progressed so far already without torture, using instead surveillance, interception, and human intelligence, they are almost certainly well beyond the point of having to resort to torture. How then can it possibly be reasonable to switch to a worse investigative method at the point of gravest danger? 

Conversely, if the spies are so desperate for information that they have resorted to torturing a suspect, they probably don't have solid proof that the suspect is even connected to terrorism in the first place – certainly not solid enough to mock-drown a suspect. And again, if they do have solid proof a) that the suspect is a terrorist b) that there is a primed bomb somewhere and c) the suspect knows where it is, then they are clearly running a Rolls-Royce data-gathering operation and would jeopardize public safety by reverting to a tool as crude and indiscriminate as torture at this point.

Torture's alright, Bush and friends told us, when it's done on bad guys - but since when did we trust absolutely the authorities to get it right on that score? It is a perfect recipe for brutalizing the innocent. There may well be some argument, out there, that justifies torture, but the ticking bomb scenario cannot justify torture as a rational thing to do. It is a canard.

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