A real life ticking bomb problem

by John Q on December 23, 2004

A while ago, I looked at the ticking bomb problem and concluded that, whatever the morality of using torture to extract life-saving information in emergencies, anyone who did this was morally obliged to turn themselves in and accept the resulting legal punishment. Reader Karl Heinz Ranitzsch has pointed me to a real-life case, reported by Mrs Tilton at Fistful of Euros. The case involved a threat of torture, rather than actual torture, and the deputy police commissioner involved was convicted and fined. Without detailed knowledge of the circumstances, I tend to agree with Mrs T that this was about the right outcome.



George 12.23.04 at 4:36 pm

For more on this issue, I would refer you to Mark Bowden’s article in the October 2003 Atlantic Monthly, entitled The Dark Art of Interrogation. The article (a teaser for which is here: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/prem/200310/bowden) surveys how ‘coercive interrogation’ has been used around the world, and what lessons — moral and pragmatic — can be drawn. Bowden reaches a conclusion similar to yours, IIRC.


cw 12.24.04 at 12:05 am

Ultimately though, if you really think about it, it is very unlikely that anyone would ever be in the “ticking bomb” situation. That would require the capture a terrorist, and also fairly specific and trustworthy information about a currently active terrorist plot, and also have knowledge of this plot’s time table.

I think it would be very unlikely that all three of these pieces would fall into the authorities hands at the precise time and I wonder if anyone could come up with a situation where this happened in the past.


chris waigl 12.24.04 at 1:28 am

While, I have a priori (ie without knowing more details) no problem with the lenient sentence for the deputy police commissioner, I found it quite worrying to see the debate about torture this case has sparked in Germany (my home country where I haven’t lived for nearly 10 years). Many voices expressed comprehension for the use of torture in (vaguely defined) exceptional circumstances, implying that the police or the state should be authorized to use pain on suspects in those cases.

Obviously, the lower ranks of the German police will, just like about any other police force, rough up suspects or perpetrators (or not even that: last year, police officers from Thuringia were convicted of use of excessive force agains peaceful protesters who happened to be undercover officers from another federal Land). Let’s not be wearing pink glasses. What seems, however, to be quite lost on those I’ve had the occasion to discuss this with was the absolute “no” to torture on grounds of principle, which, IMHO, is necessary even if “ticking bomb” situations are taken into account.

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