Tick, Tick, Bull, Shit

Don’t believe the CIA’s ticking time bomb excuse when it says it had to torture.


Tick, tick, tick. You know that sound? It’s the sound of a thousand irrelevant hypotheticals.

Tick, tick, tick. You know that sound? It’s the sound of a thousand irrelevant hypotheticals.

Most of them go something like this: There’s a nuclear bomb hidden somewhere in New York City. If it’s detonated, millions will die! And you, a heroic public servant — an honorable career employee of the CIA, perhaps — have captured the evil terrorist mastermind who planted the bomb! Nice work!

He was standing right over the bomb, sneering his sinister, self-satisfied sneer, but you caught him red-handed. Now you’ve got him subdued and cuffed. Better still, it’s not too late. The evil terrorist mastermind knows the code to disarm the nuclear bomb. If you can just get that crucial information from him in the next 60 minutes, you can disable the nuke and save the lives of millions — including your own family!

Tick, tick, tick.

So, you ask him nicely: “Evil Terrorist Mastermind, kindly tell me how to disable this nuclear bomb so I can save the lives of millions.”

It doesn’t work. The evil terrorist mastermind cackles his terrible cackle and says, “Never! Never will I reveal the code needed to disarm this bomb! We will all die here together!”

You try again. You appeal to his humanity. To his fear of death. You promise immunity. You offer him money. You beg. You threaten him with pain and humiliation. Nothing works. He just keeps on cackling his terrible cackle and sneering his sinister sneer.

Tick, tick.

Finally, you do what you have to do. You take out your gun, your electric drill, and your portable waterboarding kit. You fire a shot in the air. You buzz the drill next to his ear, and you waterboard him until he’s gasping and choking.

“Tell me! Tell me how to disarm the bomb, and your agony will end!” you order.

He clamps his mouth shut. “Never!”

Tick, tick.

Seizing his lunchbox, you quickly puree his hummus and pasta wrap in your portable blender, and feed it to him rectally using your portable rectal feeding apparatus. It’s a terrible thing you’re doing, and you know it, but you have no choice! You must save New York! You must save your family!

And finally, the evil terrorist mastermind cracks. Finally. Gone is his sinister sneer, replaced by a look of terror and shame. “Stop! Stop!” he sobs, “Please, I beg you, stop! I’ll tell you how to disarm the bomb! Just enter the letters C-I-A into the bomb’s control panel!”

Tick, tick.

There are only seconds left!

Tick, tick.

Gasping, you race to the bomb’s control panel and — careful, you have only one chance to get this right — you type in those three magic letters: C-I-A. And you pray. A pause. The Earth seems to halt momentarily in its orbit. Then … DETONATION ABORTED.

Thank God! You did it. You saved New York, and a grateful nation totally forgives you for the whole waterboarding thing. As for the rectal feeding, well, that was icky, but when you’re fighting terrorism, shit happens. All’s well that ends well….

The ticking bomb scenario is a powerful hypothetical, and it’s one that several former CIA directors really, really hope you’ll keep in mind this week to counterbalance all those not-so-nice revelations contained in the just-released Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report on CIA interrogations.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, former CIA Directors George Tenet, Porter Goss, and Michael Hayden and three former CIA deputy directors insist that all that waterboarding and rectal feeding wasn’t pointless: “It led to the capture of senior al Qaeda operatives … [and] the disruption of terrorist attacks … [and] added enormously to what we knew about al Qaeda as an organization.”

Besides, they say, the SSCI report leaves out the all-important “context” — which is that everything the ACLU insists on calling “torture” happened way back when things were really scary: “We had evidence that al Qaeda was planning a second wave of attacks on the U.S. … [and that] bin Laden had met with Pakistani nuclear scientists and wanted nuclear weapons. We had reports that nuclear weapons were being smuggled into New York City … [and] evidence that al Qaeda was trying to manufacture anthrax. It felt like the classic ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario — every single day.”

Tick, tick!

No doubt it did feel that way. But there’s one major problem with the ticking bomb scenario: It’s entirely irrelevant — morally and legally.

First, in real life you don’t get actual ticking bomb scenarios, with their certainty, simplicity, and urgency. In real life, you get ambiguity and uncertainty. You get conflicting information about the nature, magnitude, and timing of threats, and conflicting information about the identity of planners and perpetrators. Sometimes, you get information that’s just plain wrong: As the SSCI report notes, more than two dozen people tortured by the CIA were detained in error. In some cases, they were victims of simple cases of mistaken identity.

This creates an obvious slippery slope risk: If we think torture is justifiable in the hypothetical I used above, would torture be justifiable if the bomb wasn’t a nuclear bomb? What if it was only powerful enough to kill 100 people, not millions? Ten people? One person? Would torture be justifiable if we thought the person we captured might be about to set off a bomb that might kill 10 people? What if we weren’t sure we had captured the right guy? Would it be okay to torture someone who might be innocent because torture might produce information that might save 100 people? Ten? One?

The publicly available portions of the SSCI report run to hundreds of pages, but for the most part, the CIA’s use of torture occurred in situations of extreme uncertainty, not in true ticking bomb scenarios.

Second, the insistence that “torture works” just leads to more slippery slopes.

For now, let’s set aside the many arguments that torture doesn’t work — that it produces unreliable information, or that it produces no information that couldn’t be obtained just as effectively without torture. Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that torturing a suspect really does produce reliable information. Assume, as a new website sponsored by more former CIA officials insists, that the CIA’s use of torture “saved lives.”

So what? I can think of lots of ways to save American lives that most of us would consider completely unacceptable, particularly in situations of ambiguity. If waterboarding a suspected terrorist might produce valuable information and save lives, why draw the line at waterboarding? Why not pull out a suspect’s fingernails with a pair of pliers? Why not sexually assault the suspect, or start chopping off limbs?

For that matter, if efficacy is all that matters, why draw the line at suspected terrorists? Why not torture, rape, or kill the suspect’s wife, mother, and children in front of him? That might be effective, too.

Why stop there? Why not take a leaf out of the Old Testament, and slaughter the first-born sons of every extremist we can find? Or just commit genocide to eliminate the populations that seem to produce the most terrorists?

Once we start justifying immoral actions based on their utilitarian outcomes, there’s no principled place to stop. And unless we want a nation of vigilantes — unless we want a moral free-for-all, in which everyone decides for him or herself whether and when it’s appropriate to use torture or worse — we need to maintain an absolute legal prohibition on torture.

There’s a third and final reason to reject the ticking time bomb hypothetical as irrelevant: It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know.

As I’ve written elsewhere, constructing hypotheticals in which most of us would agree that we’d use torture is child’s play. I think of myself as a pretty nice person, but I’d unquestionably use torture if I were the protagonist in the ticking bomb scenario. It wouldn’t even take a nuke under New York City to turn me into a waterboarder. If my children were threatened, I’d turn to torture in a heartbeat if I thought that would protect them. Readers, I imagine you’d be no different.

But this doesn’t change the moral status of torture. All this tells us is that under sufficient psychological pressure, virtually all of us would commit immoral acts. In fact, the lesson of the ticking bomb hypothetical is fundamentally the same as the lesson of torture itself: There are some pressures — whether physical or psychological — that are too terrible for most humans to withstand.

Waterboard someone, deprive him of sleep for a week, chain him to the ceiling for days so he can’t sit or lie down, lock him naked in a freezing cell — he’ll crack in the end. He’ll crack, and do whatever it takes to bring an end to the pressure. He’ll betray his ideology; he’ll betray his own secrets; he’ll betray his comrades.

Or, put an ordinary human being into a situation in which everything he holds dear is threatened. New York will be destroyed; America will be destroyed; his family will die in agony — unless he cracks, and resorts to interrogation techniques he considers immoral. To put an end to the agonizing psychological pressure, he’ll betray his own deepest moral instincts.

Ironically, the imagined protagonist in the ticking bomb scenario is in a position structurally parallel to that of the captured terror suspect, and to ask whether his use of torture was “justified” or “the lesser evil” in such a hypothetical misses the point. Under enough physical or psychological pressure, almost all of us would do any number of terrible things: We’d steal, kill, reveal secrets, betray our comrades — or torture.

But this truth about human psychology tells us nothing about law or morality. We don’t prohibit stealing, killing, treason, and torture because we believe no “decent” person would ever commit such acts; we prohibit them because they’re wrong, and we want such acts to occur as infrequently as possible.

You’ll be hearing a lot this week from those responsible for authorizing torture after 9/11 — from former CIA directors such as Tenet and Goss, and from elected leaders such as former Vice President Dick Cheney and former President George W. Bush. They’ll all be saying the same thing: Torture saves lives; it was legal when we did it; and it should stay legal.

Tick, tick, tick.

But if we don’t want America to be a nation that slides right down the slippery slope, we should resist all calls to excuse or legalize torture. Sen. John McCain has it right: The question of torture “isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are, and who we aspire to be.”

That ticking sound? It’s a false alarm, intended to induce panic and overwhelm logic.

Ignore it.

Image: Martin Barraud/Getty Images; Photoillustration by FP

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. Twitter: @brooks_rosa

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