On 24

24 and the Use of Torture to Obtain Preventive Intelligence

By Alan M. Dershowitz

There are few more divisive, emotional, and contentious issues than torture. Until 9/11 the very word “torture” was regarded as a taboo. Torture was thought of as a discredited throwback to the dark ages, Nazism, Stalinism, and the Argentine Junta. We knew, of course, that it was practiced by tyrants like Saddam Hussein. But certainly not by the good guys! Then, suddenly, everything seemed to change, as the world confronted the specter of mass-casualty suicide terrorism. Such religiously motivated mayhem could not realistically be deterred by the threat of after-the-fact punishment, because the perpetrators welcomed death. Nor could we afford to wait until the crime had occurred, since the devastation would be so great. We had to instead seek to prevent or pre-empt the terrorist threat. And that is precisely what our government–for better or worse–has been doing since 9/11.

As we move closer to the “preventive state,” real-time information becomes increasingly important. One mechanism for securing preventive intelligence information is interrogation. This mechanism may range from polite questioning to extreme pressure. That is where torture comes into play. The question of whether to use torture against a suspected terrorist in an effort to prevent an imminent mass-casualty attack has become known as the “ticking bomb” problem. This conundrum has been placed on the world’s agenda by real events, such as the terrorist attacks in NYC, DC, London, Madrid, Bali, Tel Aviv, and Baghdad. It has received widespread popular attention through television–particularly the show 24–and it has become a source of  …

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