The Fallacy of the Ticking Time Bomb
By Aliya Mughal, Senior Press Officer
The "ticking time bomb" argument excusing torture as a necessary means to an end was once the preserve of philosophers and theorists. The past few years have seen this theorising take a sinister turn. Policy makers and state leaders seeking to legitimise interrogation practices that are in fact torture, are pedalling the idea that it is a viable solution in combating global terrorism.
The hypothesis states that where a person knows the whereabouts of a bomb that is certain to cause mass human carnage, it would be legitimate to use torture to avert disaster. The human rights of one person are pitched against the human rights of thousands - an emotionally persuasive argument in the wake of terrorist attacks in a number of countries. The argument places those opposing the use of torture in the position of reminding communities that torture is globally and unequivocally banned, but they are seen as belittling the rights of the innocent lives seemingly at stake.
The UK government has already attempted to dilute the applicability of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights - that "no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment". When considering removing failed asylum seekers to countries where they may be tortured, it claims there should be a balance of probabilities test where national security trumps the risks to the individual.
During 2007, we bore witness to US President George Bush insisting that "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding are acceptable. By arguing that these 'techniques' were not within the international definition of torture, he vetoed the legal advice of his own administration to ban them. Simultaneously, we saw the US government closing itself off from scrutiny by destroying videotaped evidence of the CIA's alleged use of torture against Guantánamo Bay detainees.
It is this veil of secrecy, the assumption of legality and the politics of fear that we need to unmask. By denying its actions, a state prevents any discussion and evades accountability. This is the refrain of the torturer who tells the victim; "no one knows you're here, no one will hear your cry, no one cares".
Apologists argue that torture is a morally justifiable means to the truth if the odds are high enough. But the argument brushes over the human cost and the long-term damage in societies encouraged to turn a blind eye.
Torture is wrong in principle and in law. It has been agreed as such by states around the globe. Torture is the polar opposite of freedom. It removes choice and liberty from the victim, and enslaves their physical and psychological wellbeing to a catalogue of violations and humiliation. Allowing torture just once sanctions its use wholesale, and diminishes the authority of any state by giving the clear message that human rights no longer matter. Such is the resounding lesson of history.
In 1987, reporting on the security service's use of "moderate physical pressure" the Israeli government famously sanctioned the use of certain interrogatory procedures providing its agents with the defence of necessity. Twelve years later, as torture became endemic, the Supreme Court moved to outlaw the practice.
Torture was banned throughout Europe in the 18th century on the grounds that it did not work. Over the years, that principle has been reiterated in other situations. In one particular incident, a World War II army commander ordered his fellow American POWs held by the Japanese to resist to the point of injury or the loss of mental faculty, and to then resort to deceit and distortion - never reveal the truth.
Evidence further illustrates that information provided under torture is unreliable. Dr William Hopkins, MF Consultant Psychiatrist & Psychotherapist, points out that under extreme pain and suffering, the capacity to think rationally is severely hindered. Victims become anxious, confused, panic-stricken. Added to that is the impact on the memory and concentration of repeated blows to the head. All of this diminishes the ability to respond to questioning, which casts further doubt on the validity of 'confessions' provided under torture.
Dr Hopkins says: "Some people stay quiet under torture because they know that the more they say, even when it is false, the more they are suspected of knowing, and so the more they are tortured."
Governments world-wide have endorsed human rights standards and the ban on torture - the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Convention Against Torture, the European Convention on Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions could not be clearer in this aim. Yet there is a growing movement to circumvent that absolute ban.
Most notably, Harvard law Professor Alan Dershowitz claims that as states already torture, to deny that fact is hypocritical and allows them to go unchecked. According to Dershowitz, "torture warrants" - authorising torture in rare circumstances that require proof for its necessity before the event - would reduce the frequency and severity of torture.
The argument presupposes that the torturing state will always abide by the court's decision whether or not a warrant is granted, ignoring the plain fact that torture thrives with or without official sanction.
Professor Philippe Sands QC has conducted extensive investigations into who in the Bush administration was responsible for human rights abuses in the "war on terror". In his book 'Torture Team', he claims to have found a direct link between Dershowitz's rationale and the behaviour of key individuals: "Who is to judge when the ticking bomb scenario occurs? The fact that Dershowitz was going around making that argument encouraged people at Guantánamo to believe that what they were doing was the right thing."
Torture does not operate in a vacuum. It requires the acceptance of society at large, and with that, comes the institutionalisation of a practice that until now, we have convincingly been able to deplore in the repressive regimes of countries which thousands flee year after year.
The question we must ask ourselves is this - how far are we willing to go in becoming complicit in the dehumanisation of others? Are we really prepared to forsake decades of progress to the point where human rights become conditional according to the power of a state?