Terrorism and Human Rights (41): The Ticking Time Bomb Scenario

I recently wrote a blind referee report for a paper about the so-called ticking time bomb scenario (a short intro about the concept is here), and it occurred to me that it may make a useful blogpost. I can’t show you the paper itself, since it’s not published yet and I don’t know who wrote it (that’s what blind refereeing is about), but I don’t think that’s necessary in order to understand my comments. Undoubtedly, by publishing my comments here I also violate the blind refereeing process, since there’s a chance the author(s) of the paper, whomever it is, might find my comments here and hence find out who I am. It’s a small chance, since this is a small blog. But, truth be told, I don’t care because I object to the whole blind refereeing thing: it stifles discussion. I only go along with it because I get to read interesting papers.

So here goes:

While the authors do an excellent job of doing what they set out to do, I have an objection to their basic objective. The paper is intended as a defense of thought experiments in philosophy in general and of the Ticking Time Bomb scenario (TBS) in particular. That in itself is a laudable objective, and the discussion of the ways in which the use of TBS as a thought experiment has been misunderstood, especially by opponents of torture, is on the mark.

However, it is my view that the authors focus too much on TBS as a philosophical device and as a thought experiment and lose sight of common usage of TBS. As a result, they run the risk of producing a paper on a topic that is irrelevant to the main discussions regarding the topic. If one were willing to count, one would find that a large majority of citations of TBS are not in the context of strictly philosophical discussions regarding our deeply held moral intuitions, but rather in a context in which philosophical discussions about TBS are intended to have policy implications. In fact, TBS is hardly ever a purely philosophical device and almost always a philosophical slash political device. A paper on TBS – even a philosophical paper – should not lose sight of the ways in which discussions about TBS are often intended to have policy implications, especially when these intended policy implications are highly disturbing.

The authors make assumptions about the motivations of proponents and opponents of discussions about TBS. For instance: proponents are assumed to use TBS as a merely philosophical device intended to highlight our moral intuitions, whereas opponents are assumed to be motivated by their fear of the – supposedly non-existent – policy motivations of proponents. The authors seem to be arguing two things:

  1. Those who use the TBS in order to argue that a ticking bomb should perhaps authorize torture only or mainly do so in order to highlight moral intuitions, not in order to actually promote the use of torture were a ticking bomb to be found.
  2. Those who object to the use of the TBS as a means to argue that a ticking bomb should perhaps authorize torture therefore miss the point.

I believe that both arguments are wrong, sociologically speaking. The authors would probably agree and respond that they do not speak sociologically but philosophically and that their point is an “ought” rather than an “is”: even if TBS “is” used as a policy device and a means to promote torture, it “ought” to be used as a mere philosophical device (“the proper use of the TBS is not intended as a policy-making device”, p. 12). Be that as it may, the paper would benefit from

  1. A clearer statement of this difference.
  2. A clear recognition of the actual way in which a majority of citations of TBS are evidently philosophical slash political in nature rather than merely philosophical.
  3. A more thorough discussion of the respective motivations of proponents and opponents of the use of the TBS experiment.

The paper also contains some statements without arguments. For example, the already cited phrase “the proper use of the TBS is not intended as a policy-making device” (p. 12). While the usefulness of TBS as a philosophical thought experiment is very well argued elsewhere in the paper, the claim that this and only this use of TBS is the proper one is merely stated, not argued. Many actual users of TBS would disagree and would claim that it is and should be a policy making device. For example, one could make the case that the frequent use of TBS by Bush/Cheney officials was intended as a justification of actual torture. Another phrase that does not receive sufficient argument: “strenuous attempts to show that the TBS … leads to terrible social policy are misguided” (p. 26). Perhaps actual torture during the Bush/Cheney administration combined with frequent citation of the TBS by that administration would indicate that those “strenuous attempts” are not in fact “misguided”. If the authors wish to maintain the two cited phrases, they’ll have to make the argument.

More posts in this series are here.

Terrorism and Human Rights (40): Targeted Killings, Pros and Cons

The use of so-called drone airplanes to target and kill suspected terrorists is in the news again. Some in the U.S. have voiced what in my view are justified yet somewhat myopic concerns about the supposed authority of the U.S. President to target American citizens on foreign or domestic soil. This is one of many cases in which the value of due process clashes with the need to respond to imminent threats. As usual, the executive has a tendency to focus on the latter.

The concerns that have been voiced recently are myopic in the sense that most drone attacks take place abroad and most victims are foreigners. Let’s therefore limit our discussion to the justifiability of targeting foreigners abroad. (These drone attacks, by the way, are just one form of targeted killing – the British SAS and the Israeli Mossad use or have used human operators to stalk and shoot terrorists at home or abroad).

So, we’re talking about governments carrying out the killings, and the targets are suspected foreign terrorists, insurgents or combatants hiding on foreign soil. Governments try to justify such killings by arguing that they and the targets are engaged in armed conflict: a war if not necessarily a declared one. If indeed we are dealing with a war then the targets do not even have to pose an imminent threat when they are killed. A history of violence and a risk of future violence are sufficient reasons to target and kill them. In a war, it’s deemed acceptable to kill unthreatening and even unarmed enemy forces, as long as these forces are hostile and potentially dangerous elements in an ongoing conflict. Targeted killing is therefore seen as equivalent to the normal and traditionally unlimited wartime right to kill enemy soldiers.

That is also why the possibility of apprehension is not considered a sufficient reason to abstain from targeted killing, although in practice most killings are of people who are difficult to apprehend.

So that’s the governmental story about targeted killing. How should we assess this story? There are some good sides to it, and some bad:

Pros

  • If indeed we’re dealing with a war, then concerns about extra-judicial killings, about the absence of imminent threats and the failure to apprehend when possible do not seem justified. That’s a bog “if” of course. One has the feeling that the “war on terror” has been called a war not because it is one but because it yields the right to kill. And one can even question the traditional right to unlimited killing of soldiers during wartime, as Jeff McMahan has done.
  • Drone attacks evidently minimize the risks of casualties on the attacker’s side, even possibly down to zero. Drones may also provide cover for soldiers in the field during regular operations.
  • Although these things are difficult to measure given the secrecy of the whole affair, it does seem obvious that drone attacks, when compared to standard military attacks, should in principle involve fewer civilian casualties. (An attempt to measure this is presented here. A less rosy view on the matter is here and here).
  • Drone attacks may produce leadership vacuums and lead to disorganization in the terrorist organization. Organizational decapitation may hurt terrorist groups more than regular attacks.

Cons

  • Drone attacks – especially if they become widespread – mean that the attacking side no longer has skin in the game. As a result, these attacks may remove an important restraint on war. Wars or military adventures may become more common as they become less costly in human terms on the attacker’s side.
  • Positing the equivalence with normal wartime killing implies that the drone operators, who are commonly situated far from the battlefield and close to residential areas in the home country, are legitimate targets for retaliation. Ironically, drone attacks may therefore encourage terrorist attacks.
  • As already stated, a lot hinges on the use of words. Killing people who aren’t an immediate military threat may be tantamount to extra-judicial execution. And merely labeling those people “combatants” and the operation a “war” isn’t enough to acquire the right to normal wartime killing. It may often be more precise to label terrorist attacks as normal crimes rather than acts of “war”, in which case normal judicial proceedings are more appropriate, which means apprehension and trial, and killing only when apprehension is impossible and a threat is imminent.
  • The choice to kill when apprehension is possible means forgoing the possibility to put the target on trial and demonstrate to the world how a civilized country deals with threats. It gives the opposite message that violence is the appropriate form of defense and retaliation.
  • Intelligence that could be gathered by capturing and questioning the targets is lost when they are killed.
  • The lack of transparency opens the door to abuse, as does the view that an imminent threat is not required.
  • Drone attacks often violate the sovereignty of other countries, setting a dangerous precedent.
  • Targeted killing may be fatal to the democratic peace theory (see here for more details).

Some of these points carry more weight than others, and some perhaps none at all. Other points could be added. It’s up to the reader to make up his or her own mind, but my view is the following: compared to the general unpleasantness of war, targeted killing isn’t particularly shocking and can even be seen as a step forward. That is, as long as it is really limited to an actual, uncontested war involving real combatants who pose an imminent threat, and a threat that can’t be averted by apprehension and trial.

What is perhaps more shocking than the attacks themselves is the fact that the whole “war” rhetoric has become so vague that anything can be called a war. Is there a crime with which we’re not “at war”? When ordinary criminals – and I consider most terrorists to be ordinary criminals, ordinary except for their particular motivation – can be targeted like enemy soldiers, what is left of criminal justice? Extra-judicial execution then becomes the only form of crime prevention.

More on targeted killing here.

Terrorism and Human Rights (39): Targeted Killing and Democratic Peace

Democratic peace theory states that democracies are less likely to engage in war with each other, for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is the fact that in a democracy, the people vote, and the people are also those who shoulder the cost of war. In a regime in which the people can influence the decision to go to war, such a decision will only be taken very reluctantly. Conversely, a regime that doesn’t need to listen to its people can easily impose the cost of war.

What’s the link with targeted killings of terrorists? Let’s limit the discussion to drone attacks in the context of a war. Killing terrorists in any other context amounts to extrajudicial execution, since those terrorists are criminals rather than combatants and therefore have a right to a trial (unless killing them is the only way to stop an imminent attack). In the context of a war, targeted killings carried out by unmanned drone aircraft are supposed to have certain advantages compared to “normal” military engagement with the enemy. Two of those advantages are that

  • drone attacks are said to be more precise and hence less likely to result in civilian casualties, and that
  • you can avoid putting your own soldiers in harms way.

The supposed precision of drone attacks is contested, since it’s often difficult to judge from thousands of miles away whether the target is real, whether the informants on the ground are reliable and whether there’s no risk to innocent bystanders. There have been reports of civilian casualties resulting from drone attacks, although the true extent of this problem is difficult to measure since there’s no public information on those attacks.

In some cases, troops on the ground may be better able to judge these things. It’s also not commonly accepted that it’s ethical to focus on troop safety over and above the risk of civilian casualties. This focus is, of course, understandable in the case of a democracy engaging in a war. Public opinion is powerful in a democracy and doesn’t like it when troops are put in harms way – that’s one of the origins of the democratic peace theory. (It’s sometimes called the body bag syndrome). Hence, a democracy may be particularly tempted to use drone attacks and targeted killings, since a more traditional war is difficult to sell to a powerful public opinion.

If indeed a democracy is tempted to use targeted killings, then the price to pay may be the loss of democratic peace. Targeted killings remove one of the most powerful causes of democratic peace: the high cost of war. By making war less costly on the party initiating the war, targeted killings make war more likely.

[T]o me the reason to prefer human to robotic war is a cold and brutal one: because it brings war home to the citizenry in the form of the dead and wounded, and the citizenry may then be less likely to support future wars except out of clear necessity. (source)

More on targeted killings here.

Terrorism and Human Rights (37): Torture is Social and Political Suicide

When democratic governments consider the option of torturing someone, the stakes are usually high. They won’t consider it just for some marginal benefit. The paradigmatic case is the ticking time bomb that’s about to kill thousands or even millions. Torture is supposed to be justified because the benefits are huge, or – stated negatively – because the possible harm resulting from a failure to torture is huge. Combining the size of what is at stake with the urgency of the threat makes the case for torture even stronger.

However, this justification of torture has some unsettling side effects. Given the urgency, and given the fact that terrorists are probably trained to withstand torture, a free society would have to

maintain a professional class of torturers, and to equip them with continuously-updated torture techniques and equipment. Grave dangers to democracy and to individual freedoms would be posed by an institutionalized professional “torture squad”. (source)

Such a highly trained and continuously available torture squad would be necessary to inflict torture that is likely to succeed in extracting the information on a reliable basis and within an extremely short time frame. It would also be necessary to inflict levels of pain sufficient to procure the victim’s compliance but insufficient to kill or render incapable of communication. Amateur thugs will not suffice. You really need professionals.

This is the institutionalization of torture. It’s difficult to see how a free society could survive the presence of such a torture squad. It would infect our entire society to know that there are people among us who torture for a living. The squad members themselves will most likely fail to remain well-intentioned, and the mere existence of such a squad corrupts morality in a society. It’s naive to think that the members of the torture squad will return to normality once their job is done and function like normal law-abiding and non-violent citizens in between emergency sessions. Torture leads to the destruction of a democracy and a free society that decides to go this way.

Terrorism and Human Rights (36): There Are No Ticking Bomb Cases

The so-called ticking time bomb case is supposed to prove that there shouldn’t be an absolute ban on torture, and that torture is in some cases justified if it can help to prevent catastrophic harm. Maybe there shouldn’t be an absolute ban, but the ticking bomb case is the wrong way to prove it.

Just a brief reminder of what the ticking bomb case is about. Suppose a ticking bomb has been hidden in a densely populated area and will soon kill thousands or millions if not disarmed. The authorities have managed to capture a terrorist who has either hidden the bomb himself or knows where it has been hidden. (One can replace the “ticking bomb” with another and similar type of deadly device without changing the nature of the argument. The “ticking bomb” is in fact a “pars pro toto”, encompassing cases which do not necessarily involve an actual ticking bomb but which are nevertheless similar with respect to their circumstances and consequences).

The authorities are sure the captured person knows where the bomb is and how to disarm it, but the problem is that he obviously doesn’t want to reveal this information. However, the authorities are also pretty sure that he will do so under torture. There is no other or alternative way to extract the information, and simply evacuating people isn’t an option given the urgency and the lack of knowledge about the exact location of the bomb. Are we therefore not morally allowed to use torture in order to get the information and save numerous lives? Or, a somewhat stronger claim: are we not morally obliged to torture given the enormous benefits for large numbers of people compared to the limited costs for the tortured individual?

Given the choice between inflicting a relatively small level of harm on a wrongdoer and saving an innocent person, it is verging on moral indecency to prefer the interests of the wrongdoer. (source)

The problem – if it is a problem – is that this thought experiment can’t justify torture. It can’t because it’s loaded with so many hypotheticals that the chances of a case like it occurring in real life are close to zero. People simply have to know too much and yet just – just – not enough. That state of affairs is very unlikely, as is the application of torture that is so effective that it delivers accurate information in a very short time frame (remember, the bomb is ticking…).

Hence, if we won’t see a case like it in real life, the thought experiment can’t justify real life torture. At most it may be able to justify torture in theory. The purely theoretical nature of the whole affair is supported by the absence of ticking bomb cases in history. Some cases that are claimed to have been ticking bomb cases – such as the torture of Abdul Hakim Murad – were in fact, after closer examination, none of the kind. Murad only gave away his information after a month of torture, and it came as a surprise. He was tortured not because of an imminent threat. There was no such threat, and the torturers did not act on the assumption that there was.

In 1995, the police in the Philippines tortured Abdul Hakim Murad after finding a bomb-making factory in his apartment in Manila. They broke his ribs, burned him with cigarettes, forced water down his throat, then threatened to turn him over to the Israelis. Finally, from this withered and broken man came secrets of a terror plot to blow up 11 airliners, crash another into the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency and to assassinate the pope. … it took more than a month to break Mr. Murad and extract information – a delay that would have made it impossible to head off an imminent threat. (source)

I assume that all those who come up with the ticking bomb to justify torture want to use the case not to justify ticking bomb torture but other, more mundane forms of torture. After all, when you think you’ve managed to crack open the door a little bit – even theoretically – maybe it will swing wide open.

More about the ticking bomb case. More about torture.

Terrorism and Human Rights (34): Terrorism Reduces Respect for Human Rights

And I don’t mean that in the obvious sense: terrorism is a human rights violation and therefore reduces respect for human rights. I’m more interested in the indirect effects of terrorism on human rights. According to this study, terrorist attacks substantially diminish governments’ respect for human rights. Extrajudicial killings, political imprisonment, torture, attacks on privacy etc. are much more common in countries that have witnessed terrorist attacks. One commonly cited reason for this is the perceived necessity of balancing human rights and security. However, it’s not clear whether restrictions on human rights do indeed work to deter or fight terrorism – perhaps such restrictions just make terrorism more likely in the long run (oppression creates resentment). It’s also unclear whether terrorism is the real reason for the restrictions or merely a pretext.

If terrorists are indeed motivated by their hatred of “our freedom“, then they are extremely successful because they have forced democratic countries to destroy a substantial part of their own freedom. Examples are here.

And whether or not restrictions of freedom do effectively improve security in the short and in the long run, governments can’t claim that what they do is what the public wants:

Terrorism and Human Rights (29): Terrorism, Caused by Poverty or Repression?

It seems that poverty doesn’t cause terrorism, at least not usually. Rights violations are a better predictor (and, conversely, respect for human rights predict reduced terrorism). I’ve found this paper (gated unfortunately) supporting those claims.

The empirical results reported here show that terrorist risk is not significantly higher for poorer countries, once the effects of other country-specific characteristics, such as the level of political freedom, are taken into account. … lack of political freedom is shown to explain terrorism, and it does so in a nonmonotonic way. Countries with intermediate levels of political freedom are shown to be more prone to terrorism than countries with high levels of political freedom or countries with highly authoritarian regimes. …

On the one hand, the repressive practices commonly adopted by autocratic regimes to eliminate political dissent may help keep terrorism at bay. On the other hand, intermediate levels of political freedom are often experienced during times of political transitions, when governments are weak, and political instability is elevated, so conditions are favorable for the appearance of terrorism. (source)