Morality, Torture, and Jack Bauer

I don’t have a television. I don’t watch TV. So I only recently learned of the TV show 24, where hero Jack Bauer saves America on a weekly basis from terrorists.

It was actually in a blog conversation that I won’t link to.

Now, I know that such discussions are not typically the subject on Biblical Studies blogs or Linguistics blogs or both. But ethics and morality are always important – as every Christian should agree.

But how often do we, as Christians, develop a well thought out philosophy or theology of Ethics?

What impact does such as 24 a show have on our views of morality, torture, and national security?

As I understand it, the concept of the show preys on the Ticking Bomb Senario, where it is argued, “enhanced interrogation” is the only way to save America from certain destruction. From what I’ve read online about the show, our hero Jack Bauer is the ultimate consequentialist. He’d rape one woman to prevent ten from being raped, commit a small genocide to prevent a larger one, throw one fat man in front of a train to save a dozen thin men, club a baby to stop a nuclear detonation in New York City.

I am seriously curious about what others think about these issues:

  1. The show 24
  2. The validity of torture for national security
  3. This article challenging the very concept of the Ticking Bomb Scenario (TBS) as a defense of the use torture (incidentally, the article was shared to me by a friend of mine in the military who has experienced waterboarding first hand and afterward, “would have stolen a baby and given it to them [i.e. the people administering the waterboarding]”).

For the record, I’m against torture, whether “lite” or “hard” for any reason. Its both legally and morally dubious.

And so I open the floor to you. What do you think of these issues and why? I’m particularly interested in the views of those who would defend even torture-lite in situations of national security. I want to understand your view.

22 thoughts on “Morality, Torture, and Jack Bauer

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  1. Mike,

    Stephen of the late lamented “Emerging From Babel” blogged often about the Bible and the issue of torture and war in general. Unfortunately, Stephen deleted “Emerging from Babel” from cyberspace. As he recounts here:

    he was so demoralized by the lack of agreement among Christians on the question of when, if ever, waterboarding and the like are appropriate interrogation techniques that he gave up theological blogging.

    However, you can get a taste of the conversations we used to have on torture here:

    The comment thread is illuminating.

    At the time, Doug Chaplin of the late lamented MetaCatholic also offered a critique of Stephen’s
    “no exceptions” stance. Once again, however, the post and related thread are no longer available.

    Stephen continues to blog about “torture” and politics generally on the site already linked to.

    1. Thanks John. I’ll be digging through those links and comments.

      The article I linked to by a law professor argued quite well for a “no exceptions” stance that I found quite convincing. The very concept of “exceptions” dangerously allows for the possibility of a “torture bureaucracy” developing. Its much safer, he holds, to follow the path of Isreal’s courts which allow for those guilty of torture to defend themselves based on the specific circumstances.

  2. I’ll see if I can get Stephen to jump in here. Though I don’t agree with him (or you) all the way, I couldn’t agree more about the importance of taking up the question in a responsible manner.

    For a lawyer’s defense of an “exceptions” clause, check out Alan Dershowitz. As is well-known (or should be), the Obama administration has reserved the right to reinstitute an “exceptions” policy should the US perceive itself once again to be in an immediate post-9/11 level of danger. The wisdom of doing so, I think, is hard to deny.

    1. Here’s Luban’s specific words on the concept of torture exceptions in the circumstance of a “ticking bomb scenario” [TBS]:

      In his 2005 paper, Shue goes beyond (1) and (2) and renounces his earlier concession that torture would be justifiable even in a genuine TBS case. His reason is that he now believes that the true TBS is not merely improbable, it is actually impossible. That is because, among the key conditions defining the TBS, are the requirement that it is an exceptional emergency measure and not an institutionalized practice, and the related point that the torturer is a conscientious, reluctant interrogator who uses torture only in the rare cases where all the TBS conditions are met. But a torturer must be competent; he must have training and the opportunity to practice; his training requires teachers, and his equipment must have been acquired in advance. There will be a doctor present, to insure that the subject of interrogation does not die. The torturer is not Jack Bauer but an apparatchik in a torture bureaucracy. A TBS without a torture bureaucracy is impossible. (page 28, my emphasis).

      I’ve take a variety of quote from the paper, specifically from pages 23ff. and put them in a separate post to summarize Luban’s view more succinctly than his 36 page essay does.

    2. There is also no evidence that we’ve ever, ever had a true “ticking bomb scenario” where torture could be justified. Luban looks at a variety of claims of such situations and they all end up being urban legends rather than real.

  3. Luban’s arguments are typical of the no-exceptions school of thought. They have been repeatedly challenged. Furthermore, should you take the time to talk about interrogation practices with police officers, FBI agents, or CIA agents, i.e. their equivalents in Canada, you will come face-to-face with a lot of things that make Luban’s arguments seem impractical.

    You might ask yourself why even a strong opponent of torture like John McCain does not hold to a “no-exceptions” policy, nor does Barack Obama, who reserves the right to make exceptions in the future.

    Here is an op-ed by a doctor that deserves reflection:

    If lawyerly arguments for-and-against interest you more, I can dig up some links.

  4. Here’s an interesting debate between lawyers:

    Here is a key graph from a 11/7/07 WSJ op-ed by Dershowitz

    Consider, for example, the contentious and emotionally laden issue of the use of torture in securing preventive intelligence information about imminent acts of terrorism–the so-called “ticking bomb” scenario. I am not now talking about the routine use of torture in interrogation of suspects or the humiliating misuse of sexual taunting that infamously occurred at Abu Ghraib. I am talking about that rare situation described by former President Clinton in an interview with National Public Radio:

    “You picked up someone you know is the No. 2 aide to Osama bin Laden. And you know they have an operation planned for the United States or some European capital in the next three days. And you know this guy knows it. Right, that’s the clearest example. And you think you can only get it out of this guy by shooting him full of some drugs or waterboarding him or otherwise working him over.”

    He said Congress should draw a narrow statute “which would permit the president to make a finding in a case like I just outlined, and then that finding could be submitted even if after the fact to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.” The president would have to “take personal responsibility” for authorizing torture in such an extreme situation. Sen. John McCain has also said that as president he would take responsibility for authorizing torture in that “one in a million” situation.

    Although I am personally opposed to the use of torture, I have no doubt that any president–indeed any leader of a democratic nation–would in fact authorize some forms of torture against a captured terrorist if he believed that this was the only way of securing information necessary to prevent an imminent mass casualty attack. The only dispute is whether he would do so openly with accountability or secretly with deniability. The former seems more consistent with democratic theory, the latter with typical political hypocrisy.

    There are some who claim that torture is a nonissue because it never works–it only produces false information. This is simply not true, as evidenced by the many decent members of the French Resistance who, under Nazi torture, disclosed the locations of their closest friends and relatives.

    The kind of torture that President Clinton was talking about is not designed to secure confessions of past crimes, but rather to obtain real time, actionable intelligence deemed necessary to prevent an act of mass casualty terrorism. The question put to the captured terrorist is not “Did you do it?” Instead, the suspect is asked to disclose self-proving information, such as the location of the bomber.

    Recently, Israeli security officials confronted a ticking-bomb situation. Several days before Yom Kippur, they received credible information that a suicide bomber was planning to blow himself up in a crowded synagogue on the holiest day of the Jewish year. After a gun battle in which an Israeli soldier was killed, the commander of the terrorist cell in Nablus was captured. Interrogation led to the location of the suicide bomb in a Tel Aviv apartment. Israel denies that it uses torture and I am aware of no evidence that it did so to extract life-saving information in this case.

    But what if lawful interrogation failed to uncover the whereabouts of the suicide bomber? What other forms of pressure should be employed in this situation?

    This brings us to waterboarding. Michael Mukasey, whose confirmation as attorney general now seems assured, is absolutely correct, as a matter of constitutional law, that the issue of “waterboarding” cannot be decided in the abstract. Under prevailing precedents–some of which I disagree with–the court must examine the nature of the governmental interest at stake, and the degree to which the government actions at issue shock the conscience, and then decide on a case-by-case basis. In several cases involving actions at least as severe as waterboarding, courts have found no violations of due process.

    The members of the judiciary committee who voted against Judge Mukasey, because of his unwillingness to support an absolute prohibition on waterboarding and all other forms of torture, should be asked the direct question: Would you authorize the use of waterboarding, or other non-lethal forms of torture, if you believed that it was the only possible way of saving the lives of hundreds of Americans in a situation of the kind faced by Israeli authorities on the eve of Yom Kippur? Would you want your president to authorize extraordinary means of interrogation in such a situation? If so, what means? If not, would you be prepared to accept responsibility for the preventable deaths of hundreds of Americans?

    1. Is it waterboarding effective? My friend in the military says no and he’s experienced it. But I’ve said that already.

      Its also clearly not the most effective source of information either:

      Nor were any of the CIA’s interrogation technique ever tested or scrutinized for effectiveness:,0,5011078.story

      We can go back and forth linking to articles for the next month. I’ve got plenty.

      1. Hah! I’m sure you have more links than me.

        That’s because your suggestion that Harvard should be embarrassed by Dershowitz, though he articulates widely-held views that others despise with every fiber of their being, is pretty typical of how these conversations usually end.

        Most people who share Dershowitz’s views keep quiet about them. Can’t say as I blame them.

        The viewpoint of the public, of course, and that of politicians, tilts, not in the direction of D’s deontology, but toward approval of torture whenever and wherever, as soon as the perceived threat seems to warrant it.

        That is what history shows. I don’t see how anything I might think, or you might think, is going to change that.

      1. I don’t agree with everything Zizek and Luben say, but I do find Zizek’s defense of torture in exceptional cases persuasive.

        The chief difference between Zizek and Dershowitz is that Z wants torture, apparently, to be a consequence of despair:

        “Most of us can imagine a singular situation in which we might resort to torture — to save a loved one from immediate, unspeakable harm perhaps. I can. In such a case, however, it is crucial that I do not elevate this desperate choice into a universal principle.”

        D, as one would expect from a lawyer, wants instead to think about and stipulate a deontology regarding when and when not to use, for example, non-life-threatening torture in interrogation.

        I’m with D on this one.

    1. “At the moment” is the operative phrase.

      If instead I were a terrorist who had masterminded 9/11 and supervised the beheading a journalist, I would not *want* to be tortured for the purposes of extracting useful preventative information from me, but I would consider others justified in so doing.

      I *would* be grateful if they didn’t actually kill me in the process.

      Do unto others . . .

      1. If I was actually really responsible for ‘terrorism’ against America (as opposed to the majority of terrorism ‘suspects’) and you tortured me to extract useful information, I think I might make up some lie just to make you stop. By the time you found out I had lied I’d probably be dead from your torture anyway considering the methods I’ve seen used in those recently leaked photographs.

        Torture is both morally and legally wrong – it’s abominable and surprising that according to a recent poll, more Christians than non Christians in America condone it. Scary.

      2. If instead I were a terrorist who had masterminded 9/11 and supervised the beheading a journalist, I would not *want* to be tortured for the purposes of extracting useful preventative information from me, but I would consider others justified in so doing.

        The bigger question is whether they only did it for purposes of extracting information. Was there any other, more sinister, intent?


  5. John: Yes, “at the moment” indicates that I could be persuaded otherwise if a good enough argument were presented to me. I don’t know if a good enough argument exists, but I accept that one might.

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