The Ticking Bomb Scenario

The absolute prohibition of torture is sometimes questioned on the grounds of security or counter-terrorism. The arguments are often based on a hypothetical “ticking bomb” scenario. 

This scenario typically involves the police capturing a terrorist, suspected for having placed a bomb that is about to explode in the middle of a large city. The police believe that only torture will make the suspect disclose the information needed to prevent the deaths of thousands of people. Is it not justified to use torture in such a case?

This argument serves to provoke an emotional reaction to a hypothetical situation. It assumes that:

  • there is a known threat
  • the attack is imminent
  • the attack will kill a large number of people
  • the person in custody is the perpetrator of the attack
  • the person has information that will prevent the attack
  • only torturing the person will provide the information in time to prevent the attack.

In real life situations, however, one or more of these assumptions is always invalid. The scenario assumes for example that the suspect will provide valuable information under torture. In reality, torture is inherently unreliable for obtaining accurate information. Professional interrogators have repeatedly emphasised that interrogation can be conducted much more effectively without the use of torture.

The assumptions that underpin the “ticking bomb” argument can also be used to justify torture in a wider range of situations.

Hidden assumptions

The scenario also contains some hidden assumptions that should be defused:

The motive of the torturer is to get the necessary information

Even if the torturer did begin with the genuine motive of obtaining information, torture corrupts the perpetrator. This is an inherent part of the act of torture. The assumption that the objective is purely to gather information is very simplistic. In real life situations other motivations and emotions, such as anger, punishment and the exercise of power, can take over.

It is an isolated situation

Unfortunately, it is part of the nature of torture that any authorisation invariably leads to a slippery slope, where the use of torture gradually becomes more widespread, even accepted.