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The Little Door to Hell - Torture and the Ticking Bomb Argument

Filip Spagnoli

Independent Researcher

May 20, 2009

The most astonishing by-product of the events of 9-11 is undoubtedly the renewed legitimacy, in the eyes of many, of some forms of torture. Since many centuries, the most brutal dictators have felt the need to lie and deceive about their torture prac-tices, and now we have political and intellectual leaders of the free world openly arguing in favor of the use of torture in certain cases. The most commonly cited of these cases is the one described in the so-called "ticking bomb argument" (hence-forth TBA).

The kind of torture that is supposedly justified by this argument can be characte-rized as benevolent torture, well-intentioned torture, or even moral torture because it is different from torture as it is commonly used by certain oppressive or authori-tarian governments. "Ticking bomb torture" is not a method of terrorizing and sub-jugating a population, and neither is it a form of criminal punishment or a means of establishing innocence or guilt. On the contrary, its declared purpose is to protect the population and to avoid a terrorist attack on civilian targets. It is benevolent tor-ture because its objective is not fear or punishment, but safety and security. It is moral torture because reluctance to engage in it would endanger the lives of inno-cent civilians, and would therefore be immoral. "A society that elects to favor the interests of wrongdoers over those of the innocent, when a choice must be made be-tween the two, is in need of serious ethical rewiring".

Proponents of the TBA readily agree that they discuss an exceptional case which is unrepresentative of torture in general - most real cases of torture have absolutely nothing to do with the example given in the TBA or fail to conform to the hypo-theses present in the TBA - and which in no way justifies torture that has other, and less benevolent purposes. Yet they believe that this exceptional nature of the case does not render it insignificant or irrelevant. In the setting of a "war on terrorism", it can be extremely important to agree on the soundness of the TBA because no matter how exceptional the case may be, when it occurs it has important conse-quences. A clear agreement on the TBA is necessary in order to save many lives in exceptional cases.

I will argue in this paper that the TBA is fundamentally flawed because it is based on a number of untenable assumptions. Moreover, I argue that the TBA, when thought through until its logical conclusions, ends up condoning torture of a much less exceptional and benevolent nature than the torture it started with. In other words, the TBA proves too much. It would not only put us on a "slippery slope" towards ever increasing levels of torture, but also destroy our democracy and free-dom. It is, in the words of the title of this paper, the little door to hell. The TBA tries to force a small opening into an area of human activity that is shielded by a very strong, and perhaps even absolute moral and legal taboo, and then finds that it has allowed this activity to take over civilization.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 16

Keywords: torture, terrorism, ticking bomb

JEL Classification: H11, K14

working papers series

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Date posted: May 21, 2009 ; Last revised: August 23, 2011

Suggested Citation

Spagnoli, Filip, The Little Door to Hell - Torture and the Ticking Bomb Argument (May 20, 2009). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1407517 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1407517

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Filip Spagnoli (Contact Author)
Independent Researcher ( email )
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HOME PAGE: http://filipspagnoli.wordpress.com
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