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Ticking Time Bomb: Can Torture Be Justified?

In the Immediate aftermath of the devasting 9/11 attack on the twin towers in New York, theorist and experts started pondering on the 'ticking time bomb' scenario and the importance of having a proper torture programme system in place.

The ticking time bomb theory can be considered as a thought experiment which many experts have tried to use in the ethical debate on whether or not torture can ever be justified. There is no need for the scenario to be realistic because it is just a thought experiment; it is only needed to illustrate some ethical concerns with respect to international law.

You may formulate the scenario as follows:
Suppose if a person has some knowledge about a terrorist attack that is imminent, which will be a cause of widespread destruction, should the authorities torture the person, so that vital information can be disclosed and hundreds of lives be saved or should the authorities adhere to Human Right laws on torture?

The consequentialist argument tends to say that even nations that have legally prohibited torture can justify there use of torture to get information from someone who has critical information, for example the location of a bomb or a weapon that can cause mass destruction which can soon explode and cause irreversible damage and kill many people. The opponents of this argument usually start by exposing the certain assumptions that are there in the consequentialist argument.

The assumption that the person is in fact a terrorist, the assumption of whether he has critical information. The opponents argue that there always remains a certain level of uncertainty in these scenarios hence the authorities should rely on moral, legal, empirical and philosophical grounds and also because there is a certain level of uncertainty about how effective torture is, hence authorities should not use torture as a method to gather information. [1]

A brief history of ticking time bomb theory and different views that support it

Jeremy Bentham a philosopher by profession is generally considered as the "father" of the ticking time bomb theory. he wrote this theory in between 1777 and 1804 and there was also a lot of transformation with regards to Bentham's views on torture during this time. He is also considered as the founder of modern utilitarianism.

His later work strikingly anticipates the current utilitarian argument for torture, while his earlier writings can be considered to be foreign to widespread contemporary assumptions, although they support the practise openly. In the essay named Means of extraction for extraordinary purposes in 1804 Bentham had described and defended torture and explained as to why it was required for the larger good of the society.[2]

This concept on torture was popularized much later in the 1960's in a book named Les Centurions which was written by Jean Larteguy, the background of this book is set during the Algerian war.

This novel basically talks about and promotes some conditions in which torture can be considered justifiable:
  • The proof in support of the argument that the person has the relevant details must meet the evidence criteria for convicting him of an offence
  • There are fair reasons to believe that if extreme torture is threatened and necessarily administered, the person is most likely to say the truth.
  • There are reasonable grounds that force you into believing that no other option can be used by you to compel the person for telling the truth
  • There are reasonable and justified grounds for believing that if the information can be taken out quickly, then it can avert something that can cause massive damage and loss of life.
  • There are rational grounds for assuming that the probable harm to be caused by the act would include the loss of life of many people, serious injury to others and also including the fact that the act would cause much more serious pain and harm to other people, than any kind of torture could to a person.
  • There are reasonable grounds to believe that torturing will not have consequences that are worse than that of the act committed by the person.[3]

Argument in favor of legalisation of torture
A prominent defence lawyer in U.S.A by the name of Alan Sherowitz once suggested in his book Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, responding to the Challenge, that like there are arrest warrants, phone tab warrants etc there should also be 'torture warrants' so that torture can be regulated. He said that human nature is such that it can lead to unregulated abuse of power, so it would be much better to use a regulated procedure, because of which accountability will increase. While reviewing this book Richard Posner a former judge of the U.S Court of Appeals said 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."

Argument Supporting the torturing of relatives of Suspects
Bruce Anderson a British political analyst had once argued in his column that it is not only the responsibility of the government but a duty to torture a terrorist in a ticking time bomb situation. He also said that the government should also torture the relatives of the accused if they are certain enough that this act could avert a massive terrorist attack. The hypothesis behind this argument was that if the accused person is a hardened criminal, and if he cannot be cracked in time, torturing his wife and children might remain the only option. [4]

Why the practise of torture can never be justified
Many Human right organisations, social activists, professionals and activists have argued that the practise of torture cannot be used in any kind of situation, they also say the it should not be allowed even in 'ticking time bomb situations. They completely dismiss it by saying that the idea of torture can never be legal and acceptable.

Many experts believe that artificial and simply moral answers like the ticking time bomb theory have played a huge part in distorting the moral and legal perceptions of general population as well as defence and law enforcement agencies. They argue that simplistic answers like this theory threaten to take societies down the slippery slope to systematic torture which is legalised.

They also clearly highlight that no evidence has yet been found where a pure ticking time bomb situation has ever existed in a real-life situation where all the criteria of constituting such a situation have met, they term it very unlikely to happen and because of that argue that torture should never be practised.

The critiques of this theory also argue that people who are made to experience torture are generally pushed to make up anything so that the pain can be stopped, such type of a situation causes huge problems for military officials as it becomes very difficult for them to separate the fact and fiction, this clearly questions the importance of torturing and its necessity.[5]

Basic international law on torture
On 10the December 1984 the U.N was propelled to adopt the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, this convention came into force from 26th June 1987. With regards to torture Article 2.2 clearly states that:
"No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

These international conventions will most certainly forbid the torture of a terrorist suspect even in the situation of a ticking time bomb scenario.[6]

The dignity argument:
In 1999, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled against the use of torture to interrogate terrorist suspects because they found torture to be completely in violation of international norms which violates both the integrity of the suspect and also invades his personal privacy. It is not only the moral case against torture that underlies the notion of human dignity, but it also serves as the basis of international legal prohibitions against torture.

  1. Hassner,R. (2018, March 26th) The Myth of the Ticking Time Bomb. The Washington Quarterly
  2. Davies J., (2012, May 25th) "The Fire-Raisers: Bentham and Torture", Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 0(15).
  3. Larteguy,J. Les Centurions. (1963). Pg 14-16
  4. Ablow, R. (2013). Tortured Sympathies: Victorian Literature And The Ticking Time-Bomb Scenario. ELH, 80(4), 1145-1171. Retrieved November 8, 2020, from
  5. Matthews, R. (2008).
    On Neither Excusing nor Justifying Torture. In the Absolute Violation: Why Torture Must Be Prohibited (pp. 186-201). Montreal; Kingston; London; Ithaca: McGill-Queen's University Press. Retrieved November 8, 2020, from
  6. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment".

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