For years now, torture supporters have been using the “ticking time-bomb” scenario to argue that it’s irresponsible to issue a blanket ban on torture. If we knew that a bomb was set to explode imminently, goes the argument, and that torture could help obtain information to avert the disaster and save hundreds of lives, who wouldn’t do it?
This has always borne more relation to an episode of 24 than to the actual war on terror. Even torture supporters have admitted that no such ticking time-bomb case has ever occurred. But it looks like we may now be confronted with a version of it in a very different context — and this time, it’s hard not to notice that those same torture supporters don’t seem to be rushing to call for the waterboard just yet.
In a jailhouse interview with the AP over the weekend, Scott Roeder, the anti-abortion zealot who’s been charged in the murder of Dr. George Tiller, revealed:
I know there are many other similar events planned around the country as long as abortion remains legal.
Roeder declined to elaborate. That means we have a suspect in custody who has admitted to having knowledge of specific terrorist attacks planned for the future. In order to thwart those alleged plots, we need more information from Roeder — information he doesn’t seem likely to give up voluntarily.
By the logic of the ticking time-bomb scenario, we should be waterboarding Roeder already — or at least banging his head against the wall. After all, terror attacks could be imminent, with an unknown cost in terms of human lives and the creation of a climate of fear. It’s a no-brainer, right?
Maybe not so much. For some reason, we haven’t seen any torture advocates clamoring to see those “harsh interrogation techniques” applied to Roeder. In fact, we asked four prominent defenders of torture for their views on the issue — and all four stayed mum.
The world’s most prominent torture advocate, Dick Cheney, didn’t immediately respond through his “transition office” to a message we left about whether he’d support using enhanced interrogation techniques on Roeder.
The office of Sen. John Cornyn, who posed the ticking time bomb hypothetical to Eric Holder in his confirmation hearings earlier this year, likewise didn’t respond to the same question.
Neither did Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who wrote in a recent column that, in the ticking time-bomb scenario, “the choice is easy.”
And neither did Rich Lowry of National Review, who in a 2006 column, used the ticking time-bomb scenario to slam Sen. John McCain for seeking to modify the Bush administration’s torture polices.
We’ll update if any of them get back to us.
It’s worth noting that some advocates of using enhanced techniques in the war on terror do have a logically consistent position that would rule out using those techniques on Roeder. David Rivkin, a lawyer who served in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, and who has testified before Congress on the need to allow enhanced interrogation, argued to TPMmuckraker that those techniques are justified when carried out on enemy combatants who are part of an entity that’s at war with the US — and to whom the laws of war therefore apply — but not when done on criminal suspects, even terrorists who may have acted in conspiracy with others. Whatever you think of Rivkin’s position on enemy combatants — and we strongly disagree — it’s at least a way to distinguish between the Roeder and war on terror cases.
But in the torture debate as it actually exists, nobody using the “ticking time-bomb” scenario is making those kinds of distinctions — see, for instance, Cornyn’s absurd questioning of Holder. It isn’t a serious legal response, it’s a rhetorical cudgel that conservatives have used to beat torture opponents over the head — with no interest in the question of whether such a scenario bears any relation to the actual policy debate.
So the Roeder case offers a useful clarifying function. It seems we all agree we shouldn’t torture Roeder. That’s partly because we have more effective ways of getting information about future plots. But it’s also because it’s clear that compromising our moral principles would in the long run do more harm than good, by inflaming and radicalizing those who agree with Roeder’s political objectives, leading to more violence down the road.
It shouldn’t be surprising that those same arguments apply more broadly.