Ticking Timebombs

“Imagine that a known terrorist has planted a bomb in the heart of a nearby city. He now sits in your custody. Rather than conceal his guilt, he gloats about the forthcoming explosion and the magnitude of human suffering it will cause. Given this state of affairs-in particular, given that there is still time to prevent an imminent atrocity-it seems that subjecting this unpleasant fellow to torture may be justifiable. . . .” -Sam Harris

“Unlike previous wars our enemy now is a stateless network of religious extremists. They do not obey the laws of war, they hide among peaceful populations and launch surprise attacks on civilians. They have no armed forces per se, no territory or citizens to defend and no fear of dying during their attacks.” -John Yoo

The first thing I thought of after reading Erik Saar’s account was this article published a few years ago: “Tortured Sympathies: Victorian Literature and the Ticking Time-Bomb Scenario.” In this article, Rachel Ablow makes the case that the urgency with which we approach torture is actually based in a Victorian understanding of the human, pain, and sympathy. While there are some pretty obvious flaws in her article, the main point is still very relevant.

She discusses the various scenarios in which someone, anyone, could be driven to commit acts of torture in service of extracting vital information. In fact, she says repeatedly that even anti-torture advocates concede that there exists some situation that could drive even them to torture. In the event outlined in the paragraph at the top, the imminent nature of the event and the weight of its catastrophe, the lives of the many very quickly outstrip the life of one. Not to mention, that the one is this case has established a certain contemptibly for the people to be afflicted by his crime. In this event, our natural response towards sympathy, one bolstered by certain ethical evaluations, is diminished, or at least directed strongly away from the subject to be tortured.

This provides a logical basis for how we can arrive at torture as a solution, but perhaps most interesting is how Ablow argues we can determine a talking body. She states that in eighteenth century thought, it was believed that truth could only be delivered through self-reflection in moment of control. However, the notion of a tortured body eliciting the truth stems from an older model of thinking, one that argues a tainted soul will never volunteer the truth; it must be coerced out of the body. She ultimately settles on a distinction that emerges completely in the nineteenth century: “[T]hose who sympathize with others and so are available to our sympathy are ordinarily cast as exempt from or impervious to torture; meanwhile, those who are exempt from or impervious to sympathy are ordinarily described as consistently responsive to pain.”

Ablow argues that this is the position currently active in our modern schema of torture. The lack of human sympathy and the dehumanization of torture subjects lend themselves to this logic. It is impossible to conceive of someone who you can’t identify with as telling the truth without coercion. They are your enemy and, even worse, enemy to all like you, therefore there is no way to extract the truth from a subject in a timely manner. It’s a vivisectionist approach, but it fails to contend with the fact that such a procedure will damage and distort the tissue to be analyzed by the very nature of the operation.

There is, of course, more to this article and her analyses of 24, the television series with Kiefer Sutherland, are quite interesting, especially in the context of our discussions.

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