Saturday, December 8, 2007

Frame the Ticking Time Bomb

Brief observation. What with all the to-do about the CIA destroying interrogation tapes, the ticking time bomb scenario comes to mind. You know the one: If you knew there was a nuclear bomb planted somewhere in NYC, and you knew the person who could prevent its detonation, would you support the torture of that person? Many say "of course, of course, of course."

This makes me think of the following: what is the proper frame for an issue--and the questions surrounding it. It is often possible to frame a question in a way that makes a detestable answer seem--well--downright upright.

Note the framing of the ticking time bomb question. The bomb is there. Certainty: Close to 100%. We know the person who has the information. Certainty: Close to 100%. We just need get the information with torture. Probability of succeeding with this extraction: Close to 100%.

At least, that's the way the question seems framed to me. Hypothetical? Yes, but nothing wrong with that. Probable?--not in the least. But the response to this improbably hypothetical questions opens the door to torture. Now it's not a question of if to torture, just a question of when. Under what circumstances.

I believe the question should be framed in a more realistic way, a way that brings to bear all the important issues: probability, ticking time bombs, guilt, and most importantly--innocence.

So here's the realistically framed question: Someone might have planted a nuclear weapon in NYC. Analysis produces a list of 1,000 people, at least one of whom is likely to have information that can prevent its detonation, if it exists. Some of them may be children. Maybe your wife. Perhaps even you. Would you support the torture of these 1,000 people in order to disarm a bomb that may not exist?

Remember: The bomb may not exist. You may not get the information you need to disarm it. But you will definitely be torturing innocent people--100% guaranteed.