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Alan Dershowitz and the "Ticking Bomb" Scenario

Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor perhaps best-known for his defense of O.J. Simpson, is speaking tonight in Memorial Auditorium at 7PM. His arrival on the Stanford campus is prompting several student groups -- including Stanford Amnesty -- to protest and flier at the event to raise awareness of his position on torture and to more generally confront the "ticking time-bomb" debate. Here we present to you several interesting quotes and resources that we hope you can use to learn about the issue and decide for yourself where you stand on the issue.

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz -- one of the country's leading civil libertarians -- suggests creating a mechanism where U.S. judges could approve domestic "torture warrants" if they're convinced such tactics could thwart an imminent attack.

"Everybody says they're opposed to torture. But everyone would do it personally if they knew it could save the life of a kidnapped child who had only two hours of oxygen left before death. And it would be the right thing to do," said Dershowitz.

But it's uncertain if such techniques would actually work. And if they did, could they be morally justified?

"The fact that we're even having this conversation shows how much things have changed since Sept. 11," said Stanford criminal law professor Robert Weisberg, known as a defender of civil liberties.

The strongest argument for rougher interrogations of those now custody is that getting them to talk, by whatever means, might foil future attacks -- possibly even a cataclysmic assault with a biochemical weapon or radioactive "dirty bomb" that could kill tens of thousands of Americans.

If U.S. interrogators ever were certain that extracting information forcibly was their only option to thwart a cataclysmic attack, they probably would just do it, says Charles Weisselberg, a University of California at Berkeley law professor. Yes, they would risk a civil suit and even prosecution.

But the odds are no jury would ever convict them. So, he says, there's no need to legislate permission.

The fact that some Americans now support coercive methods of interrogation, such as truth serum injections, leaves human rights advocates aghast.

"Once you break the barrier, you devalue your own civilization and you sow the seeds of future torture," warns Amnesty International spokesman Alistair Hodgett. "When any society justifies torture, it usually starts with that dramatic 'ticking time bomb' scenario, and inevitably it spreads throughout the justice system. I think it's fair to say any acknowledgment in the U.S. will send a dangerous message of tolerance to torture to be heard around the world." (San Francisco Chronicle)

Dershowitz's stance:

"I am against torture as a normative matter, and I would like to see its use minimized. I believe that at least moderate forms of nonlethal torture are in fact being used by the United States and some of its allies today. I think that if we ever confronted an actual case of imminent mass terrorism that could be prevented by the infliction of torture, we would use torture (even lethal torture) and the public would favor its use.

I pose the issue as follows. If torture is, in fact, being used and/or would, in fact, be used in an actual ticking bomb terrorist case, would it be normatively better or worse to have such torture regulated by some kind of warrant, with accountability, recordkeeping, standards and limitations?" (from the Huffington Post)

Links to three of his op-eds:

Warming up to torture?
Oct 17, 2006 the L.A. Times

Alan Dershowitz: Should we fight terror with torture?
July 3, 2006, The Independent

Want to torture? Get a warrant
Jan 22, 2002, the San Francisco Chronicle

Links to three opposing op-eds:

Who profits most from torture?
Ken Roth, President of Human Rights Watch

The torturer's dilemma: the math on fire with fire
Jonathan David Farley
Fellow, Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation
Jan 8, 2006, the San Francisco Chronicle

In Torture we trust?
Mar 31, 2003, the Nation

Henry Shue, a professor of politics and international relations at Oxford who has published an influential academic article on torture, points out that the French experience in Algeria is illustrative. Though justified as a rare measure to prevent imminent assaults on civilians, says Shue, torture quickly spread through the French security apparatus "like a cancer." "The problem is that torture is a shortcut, and everybody loves a shortcut," Shue says.

"Very quickly, from a rare exception torture in Israel became standard practice, in part because the ticking bomb metaphor is infinitely expandable," says Human Rights Watch's Roth. "Why stop with the bomber? Why not torture the person who could introduce you to the cousin who knows someone who planted the bomb? Why not torture the wife and kids? Friends? All of this becomes justified."

Amnesty International itself has also written an informal response to Alan Dershowitz, which you can read here.

Comments (1)

Jake from Massage Schools Guide:

Mr. Dershowitz is highlighting the moral dilemma we face in the 21st century...how much like our enemies do we have to be in order to prevent them from destroying us? In other words, how much of our moral foundation are we willing to destroy ourselves in order to nullify the enemy's efforts to destroy us entirely?

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