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Old Song: disgusting arrangement


I’m speaking at FogCon (9 March, 3 p.m.) in a panel about, “the ticking bomb” problem. It’s a moral question I sorted out decades ago, when I decided to accept the job of interrogator. The basic argument, for those who’ve never encountered it is this:

It’s a known fact that a bomb will go off (or some other variation of “people will die if nothing is done!!!!!”) and there is someone in custody who knows where it is, but s/he won’t talk. Do you torture them to get the information?

It’s usually presented as a “gotcha”, by those who are either advocating for torture, or at least willing to accept it. It’s often used as means of self-absolution by torture apologists. As given it’s a no-win situation. Either you accept that torture is allowable, or; for your own moral purity you are going to let innocent people die.

So a few weeks ago I saw a more absurd, and appalling form of the argument: Torture is a religious obligation for Jews.

I’ll let you think about that for a moment. Not just that it’s something they can allow, but it’s incumbent upon them to commit torture. here’s the article which is repeating the argument, and the crucial extract.

Q. What does Judaism say about torturing suspects in order to obtain life-saving information?

A. This highly topical question is the subject of a recent article by Rabbi J. David Bleich in the latest issue of Tradition magazine…

Rabbi Bleich adopts what seems to me an entirely novel ethical approach to the torture issue, based on two concepts of particular importance in Jewish law: the duty of rescue, and the right to self-defense….

In the European and Anglo-Saxon legal traditions, the duty of rescue is very limited. Rabbi Bleich writes that very few jurisdictions impose any sanctions at all on someone who is able to rescue but fails to do so….
By contrast, Jewish law imposes a binding and very demanding level of obligation to help others when their well-being or even their property is in danger. The Torah commands us, “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your fellow” (Leviticus 19:16); rather, we are obligated to take affirmative action to help him.

Jewish law, like other legal systems, recognizes the right to self-defense. Harming another person is of course normally forbidden, but when that person threatens us we are allowed to act aggressively to protect ourselves….

Putting these two principles together, Rabbi Bleich concludes that any person with life-saving information is obligated to reveal it (duty of rescue), and that the right of self-defense would justify aggressive actions to compel the knower to disclose his information. Rabbi Bleich writes: “By failing to act the potential informant makes it possible for a calamity to occur. . . It is thus clear that the law of pursuit sanctions any form of bodily force, including mayhem, when necessary to preserve the life of the victim.”

There is so much wrong with this, even when the following caveats are thrown in:

As Rabbi Bleich points out, this analysis applies fully only when there is certainty that the person in question can and will provide the information needed to defuse a “ticking bomb”. Uncertainty can arise here in many guises: is there a threat at all? Does this person indeed possess the information needed to neutralize the threat? And will torture be effective in eliciting the information? (Rabbi Bleich makes it clear that torture can never be sanctioned when less painful methods will be fruitful.) Obviously these are serious doubts, and experts are divided on whether torture is generally an effective means of obtaining information at all.

Another reservation here is that we have to clearly establish the informant’s duty to disclose. Since his status as a “pursuer” is due to his passive refusal to reveal information he has, there can be no right to harm him if he has valid reasons for keeping his secret. Rabbi Bleich devotes some discussion to this complex angle.

“Experts are divided”. Nope. Not unless you mean the way there are “experts” arguing that climate change isn’t happening, or that Evolution is “only a theory” or that members of the Flat Earth Society argue the world isn’t round, etc. Yes, there are people who will tell you torture works: they either don’t work in the field, or they have a dog in the fight (i.e. they have been complicit in torture).

That’s one thing. The rest, utter rubbish. Victim blaming rubbish too, the language of the abuser, “don’t make me hurt you”.

Rabbi Bliech is also opening Pandora’s Box. Israel actually used to follow this logic; troops in the field could claim, “exigent circumstances” and get a pass for torturing people who knew where bombs were. But guess what… eventually everyone was fair game. The doctrine expanded. If X know where the bomb is and Y knows where X is and Z knows where Y is and…. You can see where that leads.

Where it led the IDF was to filing an amicus brief to the Supreme Court of Israel, in favor of outlawing torture. Why? Because was both not working at finding bombs, and it was making the IDF more thuggish.

It was also radicalizing more people. Rabbi Bliech is making the argument one finds in The Battle of Algiers “Should France remain in Algeria? If your answer is ‘yes’, you must accept all the consequences.”

There is a saving grace, of sorts, in the caveats. As described this moral imperative is impossible to carry out. One can never be sure enough to torture.

Is there a bomb? You don’t really know. If you do know (not think, but know) then you will have enough evidence to have more than one person to question, when that happens you can exploit the prisoners’ dilemma.

How do you know this person knows? If you are certain (not reasonably sure, but certain, as one is certain the tide will turn in the Bay of Fundy), then you have enough other evidence to find the bomb, or someone else who has information.

Can you be sure that torture will work? No. One of the things which is known is that a limit to the need to keep silent; that is a point past which the information is no longer in need of being kept secret, makes it possible to hang until that point. All the bomber has to do is hold out until the bomb goes off. He can also test his torturers, in ways they can’t test him. He can pretend to co-operate, which will tell him what happens. If the abuse abates, he knows how to play for more time.

What the Rabbi has done is, immoral. He has put, “a stumbling block before the blind.” Those who don’t think this through, or who are truly ignorant of the ways in which torture fails as a means to reliably gain useful information will not only think that it can be justified, but that those who didn’t use it were failing in their moral duties.

He should be ashamed.


2 thoughts on “Old Song: disgusting arrangement

  1. Yeah, it strikes me that all of these idiots arguing in favor of torture really don’t seem to understand that the true use of torture, for eons, has always been wresting false confessions from the innocent. Torture is a terrible instrument for extracting the truth, because unless you already know the truth, the person you’re torturing can get you to stop by giving any plausible false answer and making you chase it down, and repeat the cycle until you either give up, it becomes too late to do you any good, or you just kill him. (And if he’s sufficiently devoted to his cause, death will seem preferable to continued torture anyways.)

    On the other hand, if you just want somebody to record a confession of fictitious crimes, and perhaps implicate some more of your political opponents, torture is great. Possibly these people should be forced to watch “Intersections in Real Time” from Bab5, and/or “Chain of Command” from ST:TNG. 😛

  2. Torture is a funny thing. We covered some of this at the panel I was on yesterday. Torture has always been used for getting confessions. Not always false (the history of that is complex; perhaps it deserves it’s own post). It’s also been used a form of social control where justice was idiosyncratic. But when that is the case (say Renaissance England) it has to be regulated. When it’s random, or mostly secret, what it does is terrorise the populace; which is why it was allowed to be known that the Lyubyanka Hospital was a place of torture. It became a bogeyman, and if anyone could end up there, it was best to keep one’s head down.

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