Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Ticking time bomb torture and Inglourious Basterds

Ticking time bombs are a topic again on the right, thanks to The Underpants Bomber. Could it have made sense to "harshly interrogate" the bomber after subduing him to find out if there are other bombers on other planes, they ask. Given that neither the Underpants Bomber nor the Shoe Bomber from years earlier were involved in coordinated attacks, I think their cases argue against the hypothetical reasons to torture people.

But what about 911, where there was a coordinated attack? I think the problem with the moral "dilemma" is actually making the time short enough to rule out traditional interrogation while still being able to acquire reliable information from someone who has the easy choice of lying for a few minutes. My response to this argument:
I think torture could result in accurate information, but only when there's time to corroborate the tortured person's claims and inflict more severe torture if it turns out he or she lied. Game theory has shown that repeat player games are the ones that establish a level of trust.

That's the main problem with many ticking time bomb scenarios, including the hypothetical one that didn't actually happen last Xmas - the tortured person's best strategy, if he's got useful info for the other side, is just to lie during the few minutes that he needs to lie. Soon he's in the hands of the police.
Or the bomb explodes, which is preferable to captured person and there's no way for the interrogator to know otherwise. Even if you defeated and captured Mohammed Atta on the plane he hijacked, he can deny he knows of other hijack attempts or even name wrong flights, and there's nothing you can do about it.

Ticking time bomb justifications seem to either come as a vague claims, or hypotheticals that haven't occurred in real life. I don't doubt that it's possible to come up with a dangerous hypothetical, and maybe torture would be justifiable then, but a pro-torture policy doesn't seem to have a lot of justifiable application in the real world.

The exception to this would be wartime. I finally watched Inglourious Basterds, an okay-but-not-great Tarantino World War II film. In one scene, the American soldiers fighting behind German lines have captured German soldiers and need info on what threats they face. This seems a good case of a ticking time bomb scenario, and the Americans could have set up a scenario to retaliate against an informer giving false information. I think this could happen a lot during war. The fact that wartime torture of enemy soldiers is the one area where torture is most disfavored seems meaningful to me.

1 comment:

  1. In real life, you generally have more than one lead at a time. The narrative of 24 only works because the plot is constructed in such a way that Bauer has to act alone and his web of leads never branches.

    If you're Bauer, experience has shown that anybody you talk to is certain to be killed or escape or commit suicide within the hour. This guy is your only lead, your time is critical and there's nobody you can safely delegate the task of holding him or questioning further. Whatever you get out of him now is all you'll ever get. In short, the plot is carefully constructed in such a way as to make the need for torture plausible.

    In real life, it's not necessary that one *particular* person follows up all the leads and solves all the puzzles. In real life, torture is generally counterproductive because it's likely to give you false information to which you attach a high truth value due to the method it was obtained, which will waste resources following false leads and distracting you from other leads that might be more promising.


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