In an article I wrote for today’s Daily Standard, I took note of the problem posed by so called “ticking time bombs” for absolutist critics of the use of torture in the war against terrorism.
It seems that even those most vociferously opposed to the use of torture seem to permit an exception in cases in which a terrorist incident might be imminent, for example, if the authorities know that a terrorist hid a nuclear weapon somewhere in New York City and they had 24 hours to beat it out of him.
Andrew Sullivan, one of the shrillest critics of harsh methods of interrogation in the war on terrorism, has a solution to the ethical quandary here. As I wrote in the Standard, he would permit torture in such a case, but only if we “know–not just suspect–but know that a detainee knows where [the nuclear device] is” (Sullivan’s emphasis). But Sullivan calls this a “one in ten million, never-happened-in-human-history, infinitesimal chance” scenario. What is more, he still believes that the officials who engage in and/or authorize torture in such an incident should be convicted of war crimes (although he allows that if their decision “were retroactively seen as the correct judgment, their sentence might be commuted”). In other words, if he is making an exception, it is narrow to the vanishing point.
A reader by the name of SDB has written me with a brilliant dissection of Sullivan’s position and the moral cowardice entailed in it: