About 2 years ago I recall listening to an editon of Radio4's The Moral Maze on torture and whether it can ever be justified.
For me The Moral Maze has always had a distinct air of nastiness, suggesting that maybe this is one of those areas where the BBC attempts to refute any accusation of left-wing or liberal bias, and the programme on torture was no exception. All the same, when listening to the discussion I remember being particularly chilled to hear several contributors argue that in particular, very special circumstances the use of torture is morally justifiable.
These very special circumstances are best illustrated (it was argued) by a hypothetical situation known as The Ticking Bomb Scenario. It goes something like this:
There is a ticking bomb hidden somewhere in a crowded city. If it explodes it will kill hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent men, women and children. The police have detained the person responsible for planting the bomb - the only person who knows where it is hidden. There follows the obligatory disclaimer about the reluctance of a civilised society to use distasteful methods etc etc. All the same, goes the argument, can anyone seriously argue that we should not use torture to extract the information, if by so doing we will save the lives of thousands?
But of course, life isn't like this. A more realistic version of the scenario is that the police detain a number of people, one of whom might know where the bomb is hidden. Despite these trivial modifications, the same line of reasoning must surely still apply; if there is even a small chance that amongst the detainees there is one who holds the key to saving the lives of thousands of people, you can make a justifiable case for torturing all of them.
This leads us to a terrible place - a nightmare world in which we have forgotten all the things we once valued. You won't fool me into going there by careless talk of ticking bombs.