Anonymous Liberal wrote an outstanding essay on the ever popular "ticking bomb" scenario for torture justification.
The second, far less relevant question is this: are there certain hypothetical scenarios under which the use of torture can be morally justified? If you construct the right scenario (nuclear bomb about to go off, suspect knows the target, etc.) just about anyone will answer yes to this question. But that's not at all surprising or informative. After all, it's possible to construct a hypothetical scenario where you'd be morally justified in shooting a little girl in the head (you're in a cave running out of air, there are four other younger children, they'll all die unless you off yourself and the oldest kid, etc.). The bottomline is that all of us are capable of simple utilitarian moral reasoning. If you are presented with a choice between something very bad and something even worse, the moral logic is pretty clear.It still amazes me that we even need to be having this debate in this country. Where are our values? The part that really makes my brain hurt is that American Christians are more likely than non-religious Americans to approve of torture, with Catholics favoring torture in much higher percentages than all other groups. You can't help but wonder, do most Christians know anything at all about their savior? I suppose this makes sense when you consider that this group went to see "The Passion of the Christ," the bloodiest movie about Jesus and by far the highest grossing, for entertainment purposes literally by the bus load.
But this is all an exercise in irrelevance because that's not how rational people make policy decisions. Just because you can construct a hypothetical scenario w[h]ere shooting a girl in the head is the "right" thing to do, that doesn't mean that we should do away with the legal prohibition against murder. When it comes to acts that are sufficiently bad--such as murder and torture--you need categorical rules.
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The so-called "ticking bomb scenario" is simple-minded nonsense. It assumes two things that never happen in real life: 1) that you know for certain that a bomb is about to be detonated, and 2) that you're positive the person you have in custody has information that will allow you to stop that bomb from going off. I'm fairly certain that in the entire history of mankind, that scenario has never yet presented itself. Moreover, even if it did, the odds are slim, at best, that the suspect would divulge the necessary information under duress (as opposed to simply giving you disinformation).
As McCain and others have pointed out, if a sufficiently dire situation presents itself, those officials who would contemplate the use of torture need to do so with the knowledge that it is a practice so disgusting and heinous that we have seen fit as a society to ban it categorically. If they are to engage in torture, they need to know it is illegal and that they are likely to be punished if they are wrong. Then and only then can we have any hope that our soldiers and intelligence officials will be sufficiently judicious in their use of this horrible practice.
Christianists own today's Republican party. They also own each and every Republican running for President. If John McCain is the only one who thinks torture is the antithesis of the most base beliefs held by this country until George Bush came along, then we are in serious trouble if any one of them becomes the next president.