There is a categorical ban on broadcasting child pornography in the United States. Is that prudent? Victims of the industry suffer horrifically. On the other hand, what if an al-Qaeda terrorist had a nuclear device in Times Square and credibly threatened to incinerate millions of people unless NBC broadcast an hour of depraved smut? Would the categorical broadcast ban seem prudent in that case?
The thought experiment is no less absurd when applied to "ticking time bombs" that can only be stopped by torturing.
In a throwback to the unsettled debate over what Bush Administration officials called "enhanced interrogation," Andrew McCarthy of National Review revives the case against categorical torture bans. To his credit, he mentions a huge cost imposed by the policy that he favors:
People who want a categorical ban on such tactics constantly avoid addressing the ticking-bomb scenario and similar questions that bring the logic of their position into stark relief: forced to choose, they would prefer the occurrence of a preventable atrocity and the loss of perhaps thousands of lives to interrogation that harms a hair on the head of a culpable terrorist. In turn, people who argue against categorical bans (as I have done) often avoid addressing the inevitability that tactics they endorse for dire circumstances will be applied in less dire circumstances—and that our resistance to a ban, even though highly qualified, could encourage rogue regimes in their more routine use of abusive practices.
This has always been a worthy debate.
This way of framing the torture debate has always been highly suspect, even though many torture apologists still cite the ticking time bomb as a major rationale.