Some urban myths refuse to die. One notorious myth, the “ticking bomb scenario,” has led to torture, murder and the potentially permanent diminishment of America’s reputation as a civilized nation.
On Dec. 13, 2005, The New York Times reported: “The White House prefers, in background conversations, to talk about the ‘doomsday scenario’: What would happen if the president believed a nuclear device had been planted in an American city, and interrogators had just minutes to extract information about its location from a terror suspect?” The piece went on to note that “some legal authorities” think that the president’s powers include “torturing a suspect believed to have information about where a nuclear bomb is hidden.”
The ticking bomb scenario gets dragged out whenever some sadistic politician or pundit wants to fire up the old electrodes on a few swarthy undesirables. It was the plot line of the Fox television series 24, in which a counterterrorist agent played by Keifer Sutherland tortures baddies to save the world. “It goes with the ‘24’ conceit that we need information and don’t have days to break this person,” executive producer Howard Gordan told USA Today. “In some ways, [Sutherland’s character] is a necessary evil.”
Is the good of the many worth doing evil to a few? Not to me. I’d rather be incinerated than live in a society that depends on torture for its safety. Regardless of this hypothetical dilemma, however, no evil could be more unnecessary than torture in the name of the theoretical ticking bomb.
Nuclear weapons have been around for 60 years, terrorism much longer than that. But no country has ever faced a ticking bomb scenario, whether nuclear or conventional. For his exhaustively researched The Good Listener, Neil Benton found only one case where authorities faced such a situation—sort of. In 1956, French police in the restive colony of Algeria, having caught a communist in the act planting a bomb, worried that he might have already hidden a second explosive device. They considered, then rejected, torturing the suspect as a means of finding out. And it turns out there wasn’t a second bomb.
Bush Administration officials, who might have avoided misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq by reading a little British military history, pride themselves on making their own reality. Gleefully skating on historically thin ice, Justice Department lawyer Jay S. Bybee (since promoted by Bush to federal judge) relied on ticking bomb mythology to justify abusing prisoners in one of Bush’s infamous 2002 “torture memos”: “Clearly, any harm that might occur during an interrogation would pale into significance compared to the harm avoided by preventing such an attack.”
By the way, torture doesn’t work. “Ultimately, the purpose of torture is torture,” says former CIA interrogator Milton Bearden, in David Rose’s book Guantanamo. “The way you do get information from people is through a process that amounts of recruitment, by doing deals.” A veteran FBI special agent adds that, “more often, he had ‘flipped’ witnesses by taking pains to build trust and rapport.”
Anyway, amateurs are working the terror beat. Anthony Christino III, a lieutenant colonel who retired after 20 years as a counterterrorism specialist for the U.S. Army, told Rose that “there are now simply no military intelligence personnel of officer rank in the U.S. Army who specialize in interrogation, as there were during the Vietnam War and earlier. Today, this crucial job is left to warrant officers (interrogation technicians) and enlisted soldiers (interrogators).”
“These kids—as bright and dedicated to their mission as they may be—lack meaningful life, let alone professional, experiences,” said Christino. They know nothing about the language or culture of the people they question.
It would be more honest to market torture as a fun way to hurt people we don’t like while getting our collective rocks off. It’s certainly not a way to protect America, for even if the government were to beat the one-in-a-billion odds against arresting a terrorist who knew the location of a ticking bomb, they don’t employ anyone smart enough to find out before it’s too late. MTW