Fantasy, Conceivability, and Ticking Bombs
by Peter Brian Barry
During the debates about the "McCain Amendment" that would ban cruel,
inhuman, or degrading treatment of any prisoner by any agent of the United
States, commentator Charles Krauthammer invoked a ticking-bomb scenario in
defense of the handful of United States senators who failed to support it:
Let's take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb
in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You
capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking.
Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs
will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?
Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty.
But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to
hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.
Note Krauthammer's conclusion: it is not merely morally permissible but obligatory
to torture in these circumstances. No surprise that he concludes that "the
McCain amendment…cannot be right" and "[t]here must be exceptions" to
prohibitions of torture.