Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, July 07, 2007

"24" and the ticking time bomb

Many essays in recent months have assailed the so-called "ticking time bomb" scenario made popular on "24" about the supposed necessity to torture a prisoner who might hold the secret to imminent attacks on large numbers of people. Among the many factors which should warn us away from this line of reasoning are the unlikeliness of such information actually being available from one person, the difficulty of determining whether the captive really has such information, the likelihood of the information being false or incomplete, and so on. Add to this the larger moral issues such as the corruption of the torturers and the violation of our common humanity, and you have a case that many have mounted against the ticking-time-bomb argument, especially in regard to the great popularity of "24."

The arrest of the terrorist MDs in Great Britain presents a particularly interesting and challenging case. It is reasonable to assume that if these men can be made to, or persuaded to, talk, a good deal of useful information about terror in the UK might be gleaned. So should they be tortured?

In my files I have a number of articles by former interrogators, especially--though not exclusively--from Israel, who argue strongly that the only way to get really useful, detailed information from a prisoner is to conduct prolonged sessions with a very experienced, very skilled, and very patient interrogator who can figure out how to exploit the prisoner's psychology and, over time, win his trust. There are certain rules about this which can serve to protect the essential human dignity of both the interrogator and the captive. Maybe it's time to reread Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon.