ticking bomb

Ticking time bomb scenario

The ticking time bomb scenario is a thought experiment that has been used in the ethics debate over whether torture can ever be justified.

Simply stated, the consequentialist argument is that nations, even those such as the United States that legally disallow torture, can justify its use if they have a suspect in custody whom they feel sure possesses critical knowledge, such as the location of a time bomb or a weapon of mass destruction that will soon explode and cause great loss of life. Opponents to the argument usually begin by exposing certain assumptions that tend to be hidden by initial presentations of the scenario (which otherwise tend to obscure the true costs of permitting torture in such circumstances), and rely on legal, philosophical/moral, and empirical grounds to reaffirm the need for the absolute prohibition of torture.


The concept was first introduced during the 1960s in the novel Les Centurions by Jean Lartéguy which is set during the Algerian War. According to Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College, the possibility of sudden, massive destruction of innocent life provided French liberals with a more acceptable justification for committing torture.

Alan Dershowitz, a prominent American defense attorney, surprised some observers by giving limited support to the idea that torture could be justified. He argued that human nature can lead to unregulated torture and abuse "off the books." Therefore, it would be better if there were a regulated procedure through which an interrogator could request a "torture warrant," and that requiring a warrant would establish a paper trail of accountability. Torturers, and those who authorize torture, could be held to account for excesses. Dershowitz's suggested torture warrants, similar to search warrants and phone tap warrants, would spell out the limits on the techniques that interrogators may use, and the extent to which they may abridge a suspect's rights.

When reviewing Alan Dershowitz's book, "Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge", Richard Posner, a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, wrote in The New Republic, September 2002 that "If torture is the only means of obtaining the information necessary to prevent the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Times Square, torture should be used - and will be used - to obtain the information. ... no one who doubts that this is the case should be in a position of responsibility.

Human rights organisations, professional and academic experts, and military and intelligence leaders, have absolutely rejected the idea that torture is ever legal or acceptable, even in a so-called ticking bomb situation. They have expressed grave concern about the way the dramatic force and artificially simple moral answers the ticking bomb thought-experiment seems to offer, have manipulated and distorted the legal and moral perceptions, reasoning and judgment of both the general population and military and law enforcement officials. They reject the proposition, implicit or explicit, that certain acts of torture are justifiable, even desirable. They believe that simplistic responses to the scenario may lead well-intentioned societies down a slippery slope to legalised and systematic torture. They point out that no evidence of any real-life situation meeting all the criteria to constitute a pure ticking bomb scenario has ever been presented to the public, and that such a situation is highly unlikely.

The distorting and misleading nature of the scenario is in part due to the fact that it is most often presented in a manner that keeps many of its assumptions hidden. Once exposed, it becomes clear that the scenario is either wildly unrealistic or that any exception to the prohibition of torture would be much more widespread than the proponent of the scenario originally suggested. The scenario thereby manipulates moral and ethical judgment by obscuring the true moral cost of tolerating any act of torture. Critics emphasize the similarities between the absolute prohibition and taboo of torture, and those that apply to other international crimes such as slavery and genocide. Critics also emphasize that international law is unequivocal: the prohibition of torture is subject to no exception of any kind. Every act of torture is an international crime. In the words of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, quoting a leading US case, "the torturer has become, like the pirate and the slave trader before him, hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind.

For instance, it is asked whether torture would be limited to suspects, or whether one could torture the family and friends of a suspect to make him compliant. According to John Yoo (the former Department of Justice official who wrote memos justifying President Bush's policies on torture) this would be legally permissible, including crushing the testicles of the person’s child to obtain information. If we imagine that officials might attempt to justify torture of people whose phone numbers happened to be in a suspect's mobile phone or agenda-book, in their desperation to find useful information, the range of possible victims of "ticking bomb" torture becomes much wider.

Another point is the notorious unreliability of the information gathered, e.g. Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi.

The biggest objection is the notion that innocent suspects could be subjected to torture as a result of this "the end justifies the means" debate.

Effect of fiction

Starting with Les Centurions, fictional stories have had the effect of making torture palatable to the general public and its perpetrators. Works of fiction, such as the television series 24, often rely on ticking time bomb scenarios for dramatic effect. One of the shows' creators stated:

“Most terrorism experts will tell you that the ‘ticking time bomb’ situation never occurs in real life, or very rarely. But on our show it happens every week.”

Also, the show uses the same techniques that are used by the US against alleged Al-Qaeda suspects. U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and others, objected to the central theme of the show—that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country’s security—as it had an adverse effect on the training of actual American soldiers by advocating unethical and illegal behavior. As Finnegan said:

“The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about “24”?’ ”

He continued,

“The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”

Joe Navarro, one of the F.B.I.’s top experts in questioning techniques, told The New Yorker,

“Only a psychopath can torture and be unaffected. You don’t want people like that in your organization. They are untrustworthy, and tend to have grotesque other problems.”

The "ticking time bomb scenario" is subject of the drama The Dershowitz Protocol by Canadian author Robert Fothergill. In that play, the American government has established a protocol of "intensified interrogation" for terrorist suspects which requires participation of the FBI, CIA and the Department of Justice. The drama deals with the psychological pressure and the tense triangle of competences under the overriding importance that each participant has to negotiate the actions with his conscience.


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