Ticking Time Bombs

TICKING TIME BOMBS….The “ticking time bomb” case for torture is so depraved and transparently dishonest that I’ve never mustered up the emotional calm to blog about it. Luckily, Alex Tabarrok does it for me today:

It does not follow from the “ticking time bomb” argument that torture should be legal. The problem with making torture legal is that the government will abuse its powers. I do not trust the government, any government, to use this power responsibly. Leviathan must be heavily restrained, especially when it comes to torture.

Here is where economics can make a contribution. By making torture illegal we are raising the price of torture but we are not raising the price to infinity. If the President or the head of the CIA thinks that torture is required to stop the ticking time bomb then they ought to approve it knowing full well that they face possible prosecution. Only if the price of torture is very high can we expect that it will be used only in the most absolutely urgent of circumstances.

This is exactly right, although I’m not sure it really takes an economist to figure this out. Torture should be flatly illegal because that’s the message we want to send both to our own people and to the rest of the world. Legal torture should be reserved for regimes like Cuba and North Korea, not the United States of America.

However, in the fantastically unlikely 24-esque event that we capture a terrorist who knows the location of a ticking atomic bomb, he’s going to get tortured regardless. The torturer will immediately get pardoned by the president for doing so, and would be unanimously acquitted by a jury even if he weren’t. And I’m fine with that.

So please. Enough with the idiotic ticking time bomb already. If we’re going to talk about torture, let’s talk about how it’s used in the real world.