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Selina Pascale

Selina Pascale


Total Article : 213

About Me:I'm a graduate student studying International Criminal Law and first started writing for King's News almost 4 years ago! My hobbies include reading, travelling and charity work. I cover many categories but my favourite articles to write are about mysteries of the ancient world, interesting places to visit, the Italian language and animals!

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Torture and the Ticking Bomb Theory

Torture and the Ticking Bomb Theory

Despite growing movements which adamantly defend and seek to protect human rights, torture is an ongoing issue which manifests itself in many regions throughout the globe.  In his book ‘The Treatment of Prisoners under International Law’ Nigel Rodley defies torture as “the officially sanctioned infliction of intense suffering, aimed at forcing someone to do or say something against his or her will”. When the CIA torture report was released it leaked illegal practices of the CIA and emphasised just how ambiguous the debate on torture is.


The ticking bomb theory was elaborated by jurist Alan Dershowitz to, in his view, morally justify the use of torture.  Many suggest that torture can and should be employed to gain critical information from criminals and Dershowitz provides a scenario in which anyone would question whether to torture or not. He imagines that a terrorist has planted a bomb somewhere; the location is unknown by the authorities and the bomb could go off at any given time. If officials were to find the terrorist coordinating such a terrible attack should they then torture the terrorist so he/she can locate the bomb and potentially save the lives of thousands? In a cost-benefit relation, Dershowitz is saying that the life of one should be sacrificed in order to maintain high security and protect society.


Before you think about what you would do in this situation there are a few flaws to this theory that we need to consider. James Pfiffner critiques the theory as it sits upon an unrealistic situation and needs to meet five different criteria to be taken seriously. First and foremost, officials must be certain that a threat of a bomb does exist and that they have tracked down and found the right suspect. Under the unimaginably intense pain of torture people can be persuaded to say anything the torturer wants to hear so potentially the suspect could indeed be innocent but would then admit he/she was responsible for the bomb, if it were to exist, under torture. Next, one must make sure that torture is the absolute last resort for gathering this critical information, this means that first officials must use standard licit interrogation methods and negotiations. There are two cases of error one can commit here: either the bomb goes off whilst officials are still questioning the suspect legally or they skip straight to torture in which case it is absolutely not morally justifiable since it is not the last resort. Another criterion to be met is that the information gathered through torture is reliable; it is possible that the suspect could cause a diversion by lying about the location of the bomb, so whilst police run to the scene the bomb will go off regardless in its true location. Lastly, if the information provided were reliable, there must be enough time to find the bomb and prevent the attack. If any one of these criteria aren’t met then the use of torture could not be justified.


The act of torture, innately a vile and dehumanising act, is reduced to a pure consequentialist cost-benefit equation. Such a gloomy prospect of torture is, as David Luban states, that ‘once you accept that only the numbers count, then anything, no matter how gruesome, becomes possible’. Given the weakness of the ticking bomb theory but also the necessity to gain information, if you were placed in such a critically urgent situation of desperation and panic – distraught about how to save civilians from a terrorist attack – what would you do?



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