Would you kill and eat a child if doing so could stop a terrorist attack?

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Would you kill and eat a child if doing so could stop a terrorist attack?

This question is a form of the so-called “ticking bomb” scenario used by some people to justify the use of torture in what they say would be limited and time-critical circumstances. According to this argument, it may be necessary to torture someone to get information that would stop the attack. This is a faulty argument, for several reasons.

Firstly, if we agree that torture — an act that modern society generally abhors — may be necessary in some cases to save lives that cannot be saved by any other means, we must also be willing to consider other acts which we would be willing to carry out to the same ends. I have specifically chosen the example of infanticide and cannibalism because these are acts which, in the history of western thought and morals, have repeatedly been used to mark off people as savages (regardless of whether or not the people concerned actually commited these acts: Spanish inquisitors tortured Aztec men to get them to admit acts of human sacrifice which probably never happened).

Secondly, the example is meant to remind us that torture does not happen in the abstract. It is, indeed, the least abstract act of cruelty possible. The torturer’s task is to destroy the core of someone’s sense of self through physical and mental cruelty, to destroy someone through terror. If you condone torture, would you be willing to carry it through? If it was a child? If it was your child?

Thirdly: the question may seem bizarrely hypothetical (what is the chance that a situation would arise in which killing and eating a child could stop a terrorist attack?) but consider this: It is no more or less hypothetical than the “ticking bomb” scenario. Torture, it has been repeatedly shown, simply does not work. And as Elaine Scarry has pointed out, the “ticking bomb” scenario is a figment of the imagination too: the reality is never one person, tortured “a little”, but hundreds of men locked up in Guantanamo Bay, mostly innocent of any crime, detained without charge and tortured for years on end.

And this brings us to a final point. Some may point out that my example is not comparable, because torturing a terrorist is not the same as killing an innocent child. But if the terrorist was a child? And are you sure the “terrorist” actually has the information you need? I know of no examples — none — where torture has stopped a terrorist attack in its tracks. I know of thousands of innocent people who have been tortured — including children. If a child knows the location of a bomb but has been told not to tell, but you could torture that child and maybe the child would reveal the location, maybe not, would you torture the child?

M. J. Grant

Webpage of The Article 5 Project: Researching Music Torture

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