Thursday, November 15, 2007

The ticking timebomb

1. Before I discuss the main point of this post, I’m going to make a preliminary comment. I agree with Joe Carter that too many Christians have been silent over the issue of “torture.” However, I’d take his objection in the opposite direction.

Too many Christians have let the opponents do all the talking. Let the opponents define the issue. So, yes, more Christians need to speak up and speak out.

There are Christians who don’t want to talk about “torture.” They want to read their daily devotionals and listen to gospel music. They want to sit out this debate—except when they want to denounce those empowered to defend and protect us from our enemies.

The Amish are the textbook example. They imagine that they can retain their moral purity by retreating to the dairy farm and washing their hands of politics. In the meantime, they literally demonize the state. And many Christians who aren’t Amish find it convenient to parrot Amish rhetoric when it suits their purpose.

But the problem with this response is that when we delegate the tough decisions to a second party, we are still complicit in the outcome. You and I don’t have the right to contract out the tough decisions to a second party, and then defame the contractor for making the hard choices on our behalf and in our stead that we were too squeamish and sanctimonious to make for ourselves.

When we pay someone else to take the risk and do the job, that hardly lets us off the hook. Indeed, nothing is more hypocritical than letting someone else assume the risk and make the hard call, only to attack their conduct from the safety and security of the Shire.

Christians need to apply ethics to real world situations, including the unsavory options that confront us in a fallen world. Unless we’re prepared to enter the dialogue and get our white robes smudgy by direct contact with real life situations, we then forfeit the moral warrant to participate in the democratic process.

2. Back to the main point of this post. The ticking timebomb scenario often crops up in the debate over “torture.” But critics don’t understand the point of this hypothetical. They attack it as unrealistic.

Now, to begin with, the ticking timebomb does, in fact, correspond to a real world situation. Here’s an actual example.

“Recently, Israeli security officials confronted a ticking-bomb situation. Several days before Yom Kippur, they received credible information that a suicide bomber was planning to blow himself up in a crowded synagogue on the holiest day of the Jewish year. After a gun battle in which an Israeli soldier was killed, the commander of the terrorist cell in Nablus was captured. Interrogation led to the location of the suicide bomb in a Tel Aviv apartment.”

So it’s more than a hypothetical. However, that misses the point.

3.This hypothetical doesn’t have to be realistic to be valid. The ticking timebomb functions as a limiting case. A hypothetical, worst-case scenario.

The purpose of this thought-experiment is to establish moral common ground as well as a frame of reference for further discussion. Most folks do think that in a situation like this, we should be prepared to use coercion in order to extract information. Extreme situations call for extreme measures.

The purpose of the ticking timebomb is then to work back from that hypothetical as a baseline to less extreme situations. If coercion is ever acceptable, because it’s acceptable in this case, then you cannot raise a *principled* objection to the use of coercion to obtain operational intel.

It is then a question of addressing the propriety of coercion on a case-by-case basis. Under what *other* circumstances is it acceptable? That’s the point of the ticking timebomb in ethical discourse.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps it might help your thinking if you drew a distinction between "acceptable" and "necessary".