For years now, torture supporters have been using the “ticking time-bomb” scenario to argue that it’s irresponsible to issue a blanket ban on torture. If we knew that a bomb was set to explode imminently, goes the argument, and that torture could help obtain information to avert the disaster and save hundreds of lives, who wouldn’t do it?
But it looks like we may now be confronted with a version of it in a very different context — and this time, it’s hard not to notice that those same torture supporters don’t seem to be rushing to call for the waterboard just yet.
In a jailhouse interview with the AP over the weekend, Scott Roeder, the anti-abortion zealot who’s been charged in the murder of Dr. George Tiller, revealed:
I know there are many other similar events planned around the country as long as abortion remains legal.
Roeder declined to elaborate. That means we have a suspect in custody who has admitted to having knowledge of specific terrorist attacks planned for the future. In order to thwart those alleged plots, we need more information from Roeder — information he doesn’t seem likely to give up voluntarily.
By the logic of the ticking time-bomb scenario, we should beRoeder already — or at least banging his head against the wall. After all, terror attacks could be imminent, with an unknown cost in terms of human lives and the creation of a climate of fear. It’s a no-brainer, right?
Maybe not so much. For some reason, we haven’t seen any torture advocates clamoring to see those “harsh interrogation techniques” applied to Roeder. In fact, we asked four prominent defenders of torture for their views on the issue — and all four stayed mum.
Is it ok to torture foreigners but not citizens? Is it ok to torture Muslims but not Christians? Is it ok to torture alleged jihadists and not alleged anti-abortionists? Is it ok to torture people who you disagree with philosophically while protecting those “terrorists” you agree with on policy?
So the Roeder case offers a useful clarifying function. It seems we all agree we shouldn’t torture Roeder. That’s partly because we have more effective ways of getting information about future plots. But it’s also because it’s clear that compromising our moral principles would in the long run do more harm than good, by inflaming and radicalizing those who agree with Roeder’s political objectives, leading to more violence down the road.
It shouldn’t be surprising that those same arguments apply more broadly.