Sowell Deploys a TTBS

As a follow-on to my post the other day (On Ticking Time Bombs) I see that Thomas Sowell is joining in the fun:

If you knew that there was a hidden nuclear time bomb planted somewhere in New York City — set to go off today — and you had a captured terrorist who knew where and when, would you not do anything whatever to make him tell you where and when? Would you pause to look up the definition of "torture"? Would you even care what the definition of "torture" was, when the alternative was seeing millions of innocent people murdered?

Let me note again:  this is based on pure fiction. I mean this literally because the reason we are familiar with this scenario is because we have seen it on TV and in the movies.  The TTBS is created for dramatic effect so that the hero can save the day.

Could someone explain to me, for example, why terrorists groups known for suicide bombings would set a timer?

And really, Sowell does not even attempt to make an actual argument.  He simply presents a choice:  let NYC blow up or torture someone.   This is tiresome.

He does go on to do what other defenders of torture have done:  argue that the time after 9/11 was like an ongoing TTBS.  While it is the case that there was a great deal of fear and anxiety at the time, the hallmark of a TTBS is a) an immediate threat, and b) the perpetrator is in custody and is known to have the intel needed to avert said immediate threat.  However, after 9/11 neither of those situation existed:  we knew a threat might exist, but the timeframe was indeterminate, and we had no idea whether the persons in our custody had the information that we thought we needed.

Enough, already with the TTBS “arguments.”

(Plus, the laziness inherent in basically writing the same paragraph as everyone else about nukes in NYC is getting tiring all by itself).

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, Terrorism, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. John Peabody says:

    Yeah. We should move the nuke to Omaha. That’ll stop TTBS in its tracks.

  2. Neil Hudelson says:

    But…24!

  3. gVOR08 says:

    Would you even care what the definition of “torture” was, when the alternative was seeing millions of innocent people murdered?

    No. Of course not. You’d torture the guy and worry about the legal consequences later.

    Even if you allow the absurd hypothetical, this really proves the opposite of what Sowell thinks it proves.

  4. Hal_10000 says:

    A ticking time bomb would actually be one of the most dangerous situations for torture. It’s a situation where a piece of false information would be the most damaging.

    However, let’s play hypothetical and say that you’re in a situation where this is necessary. You authorize the torture. And then afterward, you inform Congress of what you authorized and take the legal consequences. Rule of law. What they want is a situation where you unilaterally declare there is a ticking time bomb, torture whoever you want and suffer no legal percussions.

  5. Andre Kenji says:

    Torture is not a complicated thing. It basically means using physical or psychological force to exert control over your victim(The use of a feather as torture instrument in children´s cartoons is not completely off-base).

    Sowell also makes lots of factual errors when he writes about Brazil, so, it´s hard for me to take him seriously. His writings about Japanese immigration to Brazil are completely ridiculous.

  6. wr says:

    Without this “inherent laziness” no right wing pundit would ever be able to write a column — because there is not a single article of their faith that would hold up to a moment’s thought.

  7. Mikey says:

    Could someone explain to me, for example, why terrorists groups known for suicide bombings would set a timer?

    It’s believed the July 2005 London bombings used timers, although the bombs were carried by suicide bombers. Why? Keeps them from getting cold feet and not pushing the button themselves.

    The March 2004 Madrid subway bombings also used timers, but those were planted in backpacks rather than carried at the time of detonation.

  8. @Mikey: Fair enough.

    I guess I am just having a hard time envisioning a scenario in which al Qaeda (or the like) leaves its coup de grâce (a nuke in a US city) to the hands of a timer.

  9. rodney dill says:

    A better analogy is there’s a TTB, and you know someone (identity unknown) in the arab community has the intel. Are you justified in torturing the entire community to get the information?

  10. Mikey says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: The real problem with these scenarios is they are basically just-so stories–they can be constructed to support whatever preconceived view the person posing them has. So if that person supports harsh interrogation/torture, they can build a scenario wherein only torture can successfully reveal the location of the bomb in time. They don’t have to connect at all with how a terrorist organization would actually behave.

    Made-up depictions of exceptionally rare events are a shitty way to inform national policy.

  11. @Mikey: Indeed.

  12. James says:

    The worst part about these scenarios is that while they say we have only X amount of time so let’s torture, the terrorist would know he only has to hold out for that same amount of time.

  13. Kylopod says:

    The striking thing about these arguments isn’t just the assumption being made, but the complete lack of acknowledgment that anyone disagrees. Sowell, like so many other pro-torture advocates, doesn’t simply assume torture is a reliable method of extracting information; he talks as if there is no dispute at all on this question. The fact that there is a mountain of evidence against this assumption is of no use to people who pretend that the issue of torture’s effectiveness as an information-gathering tool is settled, and that the only debate is over the moral question.

    This mindset is reinforced by the conservative bubble, but it has roots in the larger culture. What makes stuff like the show 24 or the movie Zero Dark Thirty stand out is that the the torturers are depicted as the good guys, but the notion that torture works as a means of gaining information goes back a long, long way in popular culture. It’s a standard device in movies that the bad guys will use torture to extract secrets, and that the only thing standing in their way is if the good guy is tough enough to withstand the torture (e.g. Casino Royale) or doesn’t know anything (e.g. Marathon Man). The possibility that the torturer may inadvertently make the victim “confess” false information due to the torturer’s biases and expectations is seldom brought up (a rare example is a single line from the movie Reservoir Dogs, when one character opposes torturing a cop on the grounds that if you beat him enough, “he’ll tell you he started the goddamn Chicago fire”). Just like all the myths about guns perpetuated by Hollywood, the typical treatment of torture seeps into our brains so that we take it for granted that that’s how the real world works–unless we are vigilant about checking our assumptions against reality.

  14. Robert in SF says:

    I remember that it was an interview with Jesse Ventura where he raised the point for consideration:
    if torture is not an issue (that is, it’s legal, and effective, and preferred to use to get answers), then why aren’t we using it in normal police proceedings? Why limit it to these “millions will die” cases, and not open it to embezzling, or DUIs, or kidnapping, or other situations where information is needed but people’s physical safety wasn’t at risk?

    I know that could/would be considered reduction to the absurd, but part of me think it’s more of a future where Poe’s law kicks in….cause this sure seems like the dreaded slippery slope that some “conservatives” feel about marriage equallity leading to marrying horses and toasters.

  15. Joel says:

    @Kylopod: I’m going to stand up for Zero Dark Thirty a little bit – it’s more ambivalent than 24 about the use of torture. Yes, it does show important information being obtained by it. But it also shows torture as something that profoundly changes and damages the people who enact it. In the end, Chastain is left utterly empty and directionless after she accomplishes her goal. And I think the symbolism of her wearing a wig in the interrogation scenes is significant too.

  16. Tillman says:

    I’m not sure what the point of debating torture is anymore. There’s a debate over it to begin with, which means the anti-torture crowd’s already lost. It’s become a partisan issue.

    Not that I’m against free speech or open debate, but we didn’t have to debate such topics since the second world war, I think for good reasons.

  17. Franklin says:

    When I was young (late teens, early 20s), I used to read some Sowell and thought he made some interesting and original arguments. But this is just regurgitated fear-mongering tripe. Was I just young and stupid, or has Sowell become old and stupid?

  18. James says:

    Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone mention the thousands of people who admitted to witchcraft by being tortured and we all know how well that worked out.

  19. @Franklin:

    Was I just young and stupid, or has Sowell become old and stupid?

    I used to think he was pretty smart as well. Speaking for myself, I think it is combo of me being young and stupid and him getting pretty hacky the older he has gotten.

    I don’t read him that often these days, but his stuff always comes across as having been mailed in these days.

  20. @James: Good point.

  21. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @James: Well there is that problem, which is why the cagey torturers heroic intelligence officers always set the clock ahead to fool the torturee jihadist.

  22. Barry says:

    @Robert in SF: (quoting Jesse Ventura)

    “if torture is not an issue (that is, it’s legal, and effective, and preferred to use to get answers), then why aren’t we using it in normal police proceedings? Why limit it to these “millions will die” cases, and not open it to embezzling, or DUIs, or kidnapping, or other situations where information is needed but people’s physical safety wasn’t at risk?”

    That’s an execellent point? I hereby swear that if the GOP tortures[1] the top 10 officers of the top 10 Wall St firms, I’ll support torture.

    [1] Real f-ing torture.

  23. Barry says:

    @Franklin: “Was I just young and stupid, or has Sowell become old and stupid?”

    He always was an intellectual wh*re in an intellectual br*thel. He was good at the pseudo-intellectual bit.

  24. Franklin says:

    @Barry: So I was young and stupid. Thanks for the confirmation. 🙂

  25. James Joyner says:

    @Franklin: @Steven L. Taylor: @Barry: Sowell is a pretty smart guy with legitimate expertise in economics. I think he used to write columns on economic issues, so he seemed especially smart. Once he started guest hosting for Rush Limbaugh and writing about the same stuff as everyone else, he became just a guy spouting off.