In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, when almost no one had pondered the possibility of the U.S. starting a torture program, citizens could be forgiven for briefly pondering the "ticking time-bomb" scenario in conversation. What's nonsensical is its reemergence in the wake of the Senate torture report. There never was a ticking time bomb. A prisoner never gave up the "abort" code to a nuclear weapon or "dirty bomb" thanks to torture. No one claims otherwise.

Even so, prominent conservative commentators have responded to the torture report and the harsh criticism of the CIA interrogation program with time-bomb hypotheticals. One side in the debate is saying, "Wow, the CIA torture program we actually had was depraved and indefensible," while the other side is responding, "Don't pretend you wouldn't torture if there was a ticking time-bomb in L.A."

It's a blatant non-sequitur.

Unable to defend the torture program that the U.S. government actually implemented, they're defending a pretend torture program from a hypothetical fantasyland where terrorists behave as if conjured by hack Hollywood screenwriters.

As for the innocents that the CIA did torture? And the Al Qaeda members subjected to brutal abuse even though they didn't know about any ticking time-bombs? Dick Cheney is honest enough to acknowledge that he doesn't care that they were tortured or killed. Many others simply avoid thinking about those people. For them, torture just is roughing up a bad guy until he betrays his mass murder plot.

This is curious not only because America's actual torture program had nothing to do with ticking time-bombs, but also because the logic is extremely weak even in the abstract.

To understand this fully, an illustration is useful, and Jonah Goldberg has provided us with one at National Review. Traditionally, Americans have regarded the taboo against torture as a triumph of civilization and Judeo-Christian values. That's how President Reagan cast it during his last year in office. A quarter century later, Goldberg would have us believe that the taboo against torture is unfortunate because it's just too effective at stigmatizing brutality.

That's really his argument:

One of the great problems with the word “torture” is that it tolerates no ambiguity. It is a taboo word, like racism or incest. Once you call something torture, the conversation is supposed to end. It’s a line no one may cross. As a result, if you think the enhanced interrogation techniques are necessary, or simply justified, you have to call them something else. Similarly, many sincere opponents of these techniques think that if they can simply call them “torture,” their work is done.

The problem is that the issue isn’t nearly so binary. Even John McCain — a vocal opponent of any kind of torture — has conceded that in some hypothetical nuclear ticking-time-bomb scenario, torture might be a necessary evil. His threshold might be very high, but the principle is there nonetheless. And nearly everyone understands the point: When a greater evil is looming in the imminent future, the lesser evil becomes more tolerable. This is why opponents of the interrogation program are obsessed with claiming that it never worked, at all.

The many flaws in this argument can be grasped most quickly if we apply its logic to another taboo practice. So with apologies for the necessity of uncomfortable subject matter, consider something we can all agree to be abhorrent: the rape of six-year-old children, which is, needless to say, illegal and immoral. And I imagine that an interrogator threatening to rape the six-year-old child of an Al Qaeda terrorist who refused to talk could be more effective than waterboarding. Let's see how Goldberg's logic fares, using words almost identical to his:

One of the great problems with the phrase “child rape” is that it tolerates no ambiguity. It is a taboo phrase, like racism or incest. Once you call something child rape, the conversation is supposed to end. It’s a line no one may cross. As a result, if you think raping the children of suspected terrorists is necessary, or simply justified, you have to call it something else. Similarly, many sincere opponents of these techniques think that if they can simply call them “child rape,” their work is done.

The problem is that the issue isn’t nearly so binary. Even John McCain—a vocal opponent of any kind of child rape—has conceded that to save millions of innocents from a nuclear ticking-time-bomb, child rape might be a necessary evil. His threshold might be very high, but the principle is there nonetheless. And nearly everyone understands the point: When a greater evil is looming in the imminent future, the lesser evil becomes more tolerable. This is why opponents of child rape are obsessed with claiming that it would never work, at all.

Are any national security conservatives beginning to see my point? If a terrorist group somehow credibly threatened to incinerate the entire Northern Hemisphere, to murder billions, unless the president of the United States ordered the CIA to rape a half-dozen children, I suppose that most presidents would go ahead and do it. Perhaps some of you would like to debate the abstract morality of that decision.

What I want to insist upon is that any such debate about wildly implausible hypotheticals is a distraction from the actual moral questions that our country faces.

Extrapolating from the extreme cases is inane.

Just as the morality of raping six-year-olds under threat of nuclear holocaust has nothing to do with whether we should maintain an absolutist taboo and total legal prohibition against child rape, the wisdom of torture in a situation where it could stop a nuclear device from incinerating New York has nothing to do with whether there should be an absolutist taboo and total legal prohibition against torturing prisoners. Would Jonah Goldberg argue that we need a "ticking time-bomb exception" to child rape laws and that the absolute taboo against child rape is "unfortunate," because there could be a time when it averts greater evil? Of course he wouldn't.  

The American people understood the value of an absolutist torture taboo before 9/11. The Congress that ratified the torture treaty understood it when they made torture illegal, full stop. Ronald Reagan understood it. The Catholic Church gets it.

Why have so many Republicans ceased to grasp its wisdom?

In the quoted passage above, Jonah Goldberg acts as if the taboo against torture is tied to the word. But of course, the taboo concerns the act. Forget the word "torture."

Let's call it "inflicting severe physical and psychological pain on a captive." Still taboo? Yep. How about, "grinding up food and forcing it into the rectum of a human." Does that strike you as depraved even without the t-word? "Strapping a human to a board, gagging him, and forcing water into his lungs to stoke terror via the sensation of drowning." Yep, that sounds immoral, even without the word "torture," which is why its adherents settled on the vague euphemism "waterboarding."

By the end of his column, Goldberg at least reaffirms that there is value to the taboo, even if he thinks it can be problematic. "I think the taboo against torture is important and honorable, just like the taboos against killing," he declares. "And just like the taboos against killing, sometimes the real world gets a veto." But when? The torture perpetrated under Bush should not get a pass even if one believes that a ticking time bomb would justify a veto, yet you won't hear Goldberg calling for the CIA to be prosecuted–not even the CIA officers responsible for torturing innocent people. He evades reality by dealing in wild hypotheticals.

Thirteen years ago, Americans could be forgiven for pondering the "ticking time-bomb scenario" as part of the torture debate. All these years later, it has been debunked as obviously irrelevant to the actual questions before us and the actual torture that happened. Invoking it today ought to embarrass any intellectually honest person. Yet it persists as a prominent talking-point in debates following a report about a torture program that never once involved anything like a ticking time-bomb.

Such is the poor quality of the torture apologist's position. If a future president orders torture that averts one of the horrific hypotheticals Republicans keep invoking–millions murdered, an American city destroyed–I won't complain if they defend him or her with a "ticking time-bomb" exception. Until then, they're just proving that the strongest defense of their position resides in the realm of fantasy.