Torture Opponents Were Right

More

They've long insisted that a "ticking time bomb" exception would set us on a slippery slope. The reaction to bin Laden's death proves their point

timebomb colindunn.jpg

colindunn/flickr

Osama Bin Laden

Torture apologists claiming that the death of Osama bin Laden justifies America's use of "enhanced interrogation tactics" aren't just wrong on the merits -- the arguments they're offering are proof that carving out even narrow exceptions for torture puts us on a morally corrosive slippery slope.

Think about it: back in 2003, 2004, and 2005, the mainstream argument for torture among its advocates was "the ticking time bomb scenario." Alan Dershowitz endorsed it. Charles Krauthammer did too. It played a recurring role in countless episodes of the hit television show 24. And it proved so core to the public case for "enhanced interrogation" that torture opponents like Michael Kinsley and Dahlia Lithwick focused their efforts on pushing back against the most talked about "exception" in the nation.

The return of the torture debate is striking because its apologists no longer feel the need to advocate for a narrow exception to prevent an American city from being nuked or a busload of children from dying. In the jubilation over getting bin Laden, they're instead employing this frightening standard: torture of multiple detainees is justified if it might produce a single useful nugget that, combined with lots of other intelligence, helps lead us to the secret location of the highest value terrorist leader many years later. It's suddenly the new baseline in our renewed national argument.

That's torture creep.

Ticking time bomb scenarios happen rarely, if ever. The price of obsessing over them, rather than seeing the wisdom in an outright ban? It's going from "torture rarely, if ever" to "torture whenever it might help kill Al Qaeda's leader in the distant future" in less than a decade. This is exactly what torture opponents predicted. Back in 2005, Cathy Young put it this way in Reason magazine:

Yes, a ''no torture" stance is likely to be qualified with tacit acknowledgment that, under narrow and extreme circumstances, the rules may be bent. That seems vastly preferable to open endorsement of torture. If we start with a ''thou shalt not torture" absolute, we are likely to be vigilant about lapses from this commandment, limiting them only to absolute necessity. If we start with the premise that torture is sometimes acceptable, there's no telling how low we're going to go on that slippery slope.

In just a few years, torture apologists have slipped a long way.

Image credit: Rick Wilking/Reuters

Jump to comments
Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Crazy Tech Idea Could Become Real?

"There could be great intelligence enhancements, like infinite memory."


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Why Do People Love Times Square?

A filmmaker asks New Yorkers and tourists about the allure of Broadway's iconic plaza

Video

A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Video

What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets

Video

Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.

Video

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In