Repent, Torturer, said the Ticktockbomb… on Torture, Anarchist Justice, and Responsibility

A recent discussion brought up the morality of torture, with its familiar explanation — the ticking time bomb.

While I think this document more than adequately lays out the arguments against the usefulness of the ticking time bomb (TTB), it did open up one question for me that ties in to some of my concerns about anarchist justice*.

As pointed out by John Conroy in his book Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People:

“It takes no genius to see a pattern here, and that pattern is repeated throughout the world: torturers are rarely punished, and when they are, the punishment rarely corresponds to the severity of the crime.”

Conroy was talking about extra-legal torture; but it applies even more so to state-supported torture.  Typically, the state provides some level of indemnification for people required to use force in its name — not absolute, as the existence of police brutality charges demonstrates, though many people consider them vastly underutilized.

So: Now we head into thought-experiment/SF speculation territory.

What if the state authorized torture — but under certain very narrow conditions. First and foremost of which was that failure, on the part of the torturer, would have very severe consequences for the torturer, not “for the people they couldn’t save”, not for the torture victim, etc.

For example: A person dies as a result of your torture? You are executed, without appeal. If you claim the privilege of torturing someone and it is discovered you have tortured the wrong person? You are sentenced to prison, just as severely as if you had tortured an innocent — because that is what you did.  No “I didn’t know” defense, no blaming the people who brought the subject there — you tortured the wrong person, you go to prison, period, end of discussion. Claim the privilege of torture and fail to acquire the requisite information? You are now culpable for the act you failed to prevent, because your torture got in the way of other people (perhaps) doing their work; you are financially/legally/morally liable for that failure.

(Please note: I am removing the trial phase from this, because recent events in the United States have shown that, given a chance, the judicial system will go to extreme lengths to protect cases of police brutality — I have no doubt that, given a chance, district attorneys would do a fine job of failing to indict torturers.  I am also aware that states could, for example, found “torturer’s prisons” that were luxurious — but that’s heading into SFnal world building, not thought experiment.**)

I wonder how many people would volunteer under those circumstances to be torturers — and of those who did volunteer, how many would be considered sane enough to be allowed access to the skills/tools/etc., and of that (I suspect) much smaller number, how many would survive their first session with their lives, fortunes, or freedoms intact.

This goes doubly for people who would torture “because their loved ones were in danger” or some such — while it might lower their psychological limits, it would also (likely) drastically reduce both their restraint and their ability to pick up on the sorts of things interrogators need to be able to do.

The thing about the TTB scenario, and all the “we can save X through torture!” scenarios is that they distribute the bulk of the costs and the risks among the tortured, and the society who is supposed to stand behind the torturer.   The torturer themselves, if they can live with what they’ve done in their conscience? Scot free.

I think this is not a bug, but a feature, for those who propose it.  And I do not think it compatible with any reasonable construction of “freedom” in a democratic society, because ‘freedom from consequence’ is not one of those freedoms we guarantee — indeed, it is not possible.

(I want to be clear: I, personally, do not believe this “torture privilege” is a good thing; I am against it. I want the people who are willing to entertain the TTB to have to face the implications and consequences, which they often do not.)

So, to anyone who proposes the TTB scenario, I ask them: Are you prepared, if you torture someone and they die, to be shot for it? Are you prepared, if you torture someone who, it turns out, isn’t the right person, to spend years in prison for it? Are you prepared, if you torture someone and fail, and the bomb goes off, to be culpable for it, to see your assets stripped away in restitution, and (if you are lucky) receiving a prison sentence for negligible homicide?

If not, then perhaps you don’t hear the ticking as loudly as you thought you did.

*I intend to write more about this later, but the subject hit home first here.

** I may have to remember that one, for a short story some time.


2 thoughts on “Repent, Torturer, said the Ticktockbomb… on Torture, Anarchist Justice, and Responsibility

  1. It’s worth pointing out that the Ticking Time Bomb problem is a specific elaboration of what the philosophers call the Trolley Problem: A trolley car is careening unstoppably down a track. There is a switch in the track and you control the switch. If you do not act, the trolley will go down one track and plow into a crowd of people, killing many and injuring many others. If you throw the switch, though, the trolley goes down the other track and will certainly kill a single person. Do you throw the switch? Why or why not? The climax to Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron is essentially the Trolley Problem. So is Tom Godwin’s famoush story, “The Cold Equations.”

    The fact of the matter is, one cannot pose a Trolley Problem without stacking the deck. The real world doesn’t work like that. A commenter on the philosophical blog Crooked Timber writes:
    Philosophers should not be looking for excuses to kill people. There are plenty of real-world cases where killing is unavoidable, why revel in them, and try to stretch their limits and see how crazy a situation you have to come up with to get Mother Teresa to machine-gun an orphan? This is the “philosophy” of 24, a “philosophy” that justifies torture, a “philosophy” that contains neither love nor wisdom.


    1. “The fact of the matter is, one cannot pose a Trolley Problem without stacking the deck. The real world doesn’t work like that”

      This is very true; but I think it is also worth examining even the tenets of a thought experiment to make sure they don’t *contradict* — as, I think, some of the assumptions behind the TTB scenario do — e.g. to have a torturer sufficiently good to make the TTB “we can retrieve what we need” true, we need to torture in circumstances beyond the TTB, as there just aren’t that many time bombs lying around.

      That feels like an internal contradiction, which I do not see in the Trolley Problem.

      And, as you pointed out, philosophers should not be looking for excuses — and the TTB is indeed, to my lights, just such an excuse.


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