Two Narratives of Torture

43 Pages Posted: 1 Nov 2008 Last revised: 1 Sep 2016

See all articles by John Ip

John Ip

University of Auckland - Faculty of Law

Date Written: April 10, 2009


This article is about two different narratives or accounts of torture. Each narrative signifies a certain view about the legality and wisdom of employing torture and coercion in interrogation. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the use of torture and coercion has become a topic of genuine debate, despite a sizable corpus of domestic and international law prohibiting those very practices.

The first narrative of torture is centered on the ticking bomb scenario, the hypothetical that has frequently been deployed in the academic arena to overcome the absolutist nature of the legal prohibition on torture. Since 9/11, the ticking bomb scenario has also appeared in various official government documents and statements that assert the legality of torture and coercive interrogation techniques. It has also been replicated in popular culture, the most notable example being Fox's counterterrorism drama, 24.

A second narrative of torture challenges the validity and usefulness of the ticking bomb scenario. Various academic commentators have unpacked the assumptions underlying the scenario. Certain government actors, most notably the Federal Bureau of Investigation and military lawyers, have consistently rejected the logic of the ticking bomb scenario, and opposed the use of torture and coercion in interrogation. This second narrative also has a popular culture representative in the form of Sci-Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica. Thus, the same battles that have been fought over the treatment of detainees in the "war on terror" in the legal and political arenas by real world actors since 9/11 are also being fought at a discursive level in popular culture.

Keywords: terrorism, national security, torture, interrogation, ticking bomb scenario, popular culture, narrative, Battlestar Galactica, 24

Suggested Citation

Ip, John, Two Narratives of Torture (April 10, 2009). Northwestern University Journal of International Human Rights, Vol. 7, No. 1, p. 35, 2009, Available at SSRN: or

John Ip (Contact Author)

University of Auckland - Faculty of Law ( email )

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Auckland Mail Centre
Auckland, 1142
New Zealand

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