Armed Hostilities

What Is The Ticking Bomb Scenario

Table of Contents
  1. Introduction
  2. Ticking Bomb Scenario
  3. Justification for Torture
  4. Torture is Unacceptable
  5. Conclusion
  6. References


The ticking bomb scenario (“TBS”) is a concept used by those who favor the use of torture. TBS underscores the urgent need to extract information from a suspect or known terrorist. The urgency is based on the premise that a bomb is about to explode and that it is imperative to determine where and how to defuse the said bomb. Thus, every second is important when it comes to increasing the chance of thwarting the plans of terrorists and apprehending criminals. Hundreds or even thousands of lives are on the line. Interrogators must be given all the necessary tools that they need to acquire critical information. There is no argument that interrogators and investigators must be given access to every available resource in order to pre-empt an attack. But it is important to ask if there is a limit to what they can do (Gilbert, 2002, p. 40). Surely everything must be done within the bounds of the law. However, there are those who will argue that extraordinary problems sometimes require the use of extraordinary solutions (Girardo & Trinkunas, 2007, p.25). It is the opinion of the proponent of this study that torture cannot be a part of interrogation techniques even if they are working with a ticking bomb scenario.

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Before going any further, it is important to clarify what a ticking bomb scenario implies. According to one commentary, “the ticking bomb scenario operates by manipulating the emotional reactions of the audience” (Association for the Prevention of Torture, 2007, p.6). A ticking bomb event is a highly emotional interaction between law enforcement agencies and known terrorists. In another clarifying remark, those who spent time analyzing the issue has this to say about TBS: “Whatever the reason for its presence in a given context, the intended effect of the ticking bomb scenario is to create doubt about the wisdom of the absolute prohibition of torture” (Association for the Prevention of Torture, 2007, p.6). It is interesting to point out that the discussion regarding TBS more often than not comes to the surface when torture or extreme interrogation strategies are discussed.

Ticking Bomb Scenario

It can be argued that TBS is not a regular occurrence among law enforcement agencies. There are so many factors that have to come together in order to experience a real TBS case. First of all, a bomb must be planted first and set to blow any second. Law enforcement officers have no clear details with regards to the bomb and its location. The second factor that must come into play is the apprehension of a suspect or terrorist that has direct or indirect knowledge regarding the bomb. The person of interest and the person in custody must provide clues regarding the location of the bomb in order for law enforcement agencies to disarm it or at least order affected parties to leave the area. Aside from the urgency of the situation, those who favor the use of torture also cite the fact that terrorists are not ordinary criminals. Terrorists are a different breed of lawbreakers and in order to deal with them effectively, law enforcement agencies must be given the capability to bend the rules (Hamzeh, 2004, p.8). It is easy to analyze terrorism from a distance but it is different when interrogators encounter a real terrorist face-to-face (Harik, 2005, p.10). Based on their previous handiwork it can be said that they are totally dedicated to their goal. They will stop at nothing to accomplish their mission. Interrogators may find it extremely difficult to force a known terrorist to confess, especially if this terrorist is willing to die for a cause (Juergensmeyer, 2003).

As mentioned earlier, TBS is a valid argument, especially when it pertains to terrorists armed with a nuclear device or any type of weapon of mass destruction. It is easy to say that torture is wrong based on a strict moral code but if one considers the destructive capability and the methodologies used by terrorists it is hard to simply ignore the call for drastic measures (Smith, 2008, p.20). There are two types of terrorists. The first group is referred to as home-grown. The second group is foreign-based terrorists. The latter can migrate to a target country and blend in undetected for a long period of time. They will then surface only if it is already the opportune time to strike. In the United States, “domestic terrorism is the unlawful use, or threatened use of force or violence by a group of individuals based in the US mainland” (Addicott, 2004, p.3). The same principle is applicable in other countries where local citizens turn against their own people because of a perverted ideology that inspired them to kill and maim.

A home-grown terrorist is any citizen that uses “force and violence against persons or property and if they intimidate or coerce a government, a civilian to further political or social objectives” (Addicott, 2004, p.3). They may come from a religious organization or a member of a paramilitary group, but if they engage in acts of terrorism then they will be treated the same as Islamic terrorists (Stern, 2003). The infamous Oklahoma bombing and the Unabomber of many years past were all linked to American citizens. The same thing can be said in the United Kingdom if a citizen or group of citizens decided to use force and violence against persons or property within the UK.

The opposite of home-grown terrorists is foreign-born terrorists. These are outsiders who will use guerrilla tactics and blend in with the local population to avoid detection but their capability to destroy is as potent as home-based terror groups. It can even be argued those Islamic terrorists are more dangerous than other forms of terrorism because their ideology is based on religion. If one includes religion in the discussion, then it means that they are not only willing to work for a cause but they are also ready to give their lives for it. Religion offers something that a political ideology cannot match. A political ideology may talk about a social issue that is easier to deal with. But a religious agenda is something that even a rational mind may not be able to comprehend.

Justification for Torture

An example of a dastardly act of terrorism is the Bali bombing in 2002. It was the handiwork of an al-Qaeda affiliate in Southeast Asia known all over the globe as the Jemaah Islamiyah. This particular group’s primary goal is to kill foreigners. The Bali bombing easily transformed a scenic tourist spot into a place of carnage. An overview of the terror attacks sponsored by Islamic terrorists in the 21st century alone boggles the mind when it comes to their extreme hatred towards those who indirectly offended them. However, their explanation regarding the offense made against them defies logic. It is difficult to understand what drives them to kill thousands of innocent civilians. Those who use the argument of using torture in the context of TBS have a valid point considering the destructive nature of foreign-based terror groups.

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The U.S. intelligence community and various law enforcement agencies are faced with a dilemma when it comes to the urgent need to gather reliable and effective information. Intelligence gathering must be balanced between the need to collect pertinent information against ethical standards governing this type of activity. One of the most divisive issues concerns aggressive data gathering that has to be balanced with the need for privacy (Turner, 2005, p.15). But there is another issue that is not often discussed in the media but just the same requires the informed decision of society in general. People need to know if law enforcement agencies use torture as part of their interrogation tools.

In the second Iraq War spearheaded by the United States, the United Kingdom was a willing participant. This nation supported the Americans all the way. It was a conflict that garnered mixed reactions from the international community. But the reputations of the leaders involved were further comprised after the US soldiers captured a prison facility called the Abu Ghraib jail complex. It has to be pointed out that even before US forces overran the said facility and took control of it, the Abu Ghraib prison facility was already an infamous landmark within Baghdad. It was no ordinary prison because the jail guards and prison officials condone the use of torture.

The said prison facility earned the sordid reputation of being a place of cruelty, torture, humiliation. If only the walls of the said jail system can talk it would spew out confessions regarding the use of perverse interrogation techniques. The US forces who occupied Abu Ghraib were supposed to be a transforming power. In the same way that coalition forces destroyed the tyranny that was Saddam Hussein, the use of the Abu Ghraib prison facility should result in the observance of law and order and therefore the prisoners housed within the complex should expect a measure of orderliness and justice. But unknown to so many people, the absence of accountability and the lack of supervision encouraged the use of torture by US soldiers.

Torture is Unacceptable

There is no justification for the use of torture, especially when viewed from the superior position of the US forces. In this context, torture is cruel and inhumane. The Bill of Rights “forbids cruel and unusual punishment, and that has come to include all forms of corporal punishment except prison and death by methods purported to be painless” (Luban, 2005, p.1425). It places the United States and its allies like the United Kingdom in a bad light. The attack on a sovereign country was based on a just cause and moral principles. The expose on the Abu Ghraib scandal destroyed any pretence to a moral justification for attacking Iraq. Torture invalidates all the arguments made against the need to apprehend those who broke the law. The use of torture is a crime and therefore it can never be used to address another crime. The one who uses torture becomes a criminal in the eyes of public opinion and the law and therefore he or she has no right to apprehend and interrogate others who transgresses the law.

It has been made clear that the Abu Ghraib fiasco is an example of blatant disregard for the law and a prime example of what will happen if there is no system of accountability in place. However, those who are in favour for the use of torture can point to other examples that are very much different from the Abu Ghraib scandal. They will argue that in the case of the Abu Ghraib there was no TBS. There was no need to use torture because US soldiers have the luxury of time to investigate and interrogate prisoners to get the information that they really need. However, a different argument can be made if there is a ticking bomb scenario within London.

There are many problems when it comes to torture. The objections that will be outlined as follows provide strong arguments as to why it is impractical, unproductive, and dangerous for both the one who inflict pain and the person being tortured. The first major problem is that there is hardly any case where one can apply the ticking bomb scenario. It is only in movies and television shows where one can see a depiction of the TBS. But in real life it is extremely difficult to locate a documented case wherein law enforcement agencies had apprehended a terrorist who had just armed a bomb that is ready to explode any minute.

If one will take a step backward and re-examine the whole argument, he or she will find that most of the argument regarding TBS is based on fantasy generated by movies and TV shows. In other words, TBS does not occur in real life. This revelation puts an end to the ongoing debate that there can be exceptions to the ban against the use of torture. If TBS is purely fictional then there is no need to fast-track the investigation using torture techniques. It is useless and unnecessary because there is no ticking bomb that has to be located in the shortest possible time.

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There are those who may offer a counter-argument saying that law enforcement agencies need not wait for a TBS before they follow through with a critical investigation. They can argue even further that it is better to pre-empt any terror attack rather than to react to the aftermath of a tragedy like the September 11 terror attacks. It has been made clear that a ticking bomb scenario is highly improbable wherein law enforcement agents are face-to-face with a terrorist with direct knowledge of the whereabouts of the explosives or an impending attack. However, for the sake of argument one can indulge proponents of torture in a debate regarding the effectiveness of using force and violence to extract truth from an uncooperative detainee.

Now, consider the necessity of torture in the context of TBS. There is very limited time and the use of torture is made on the presumption that the suffering of one man is justified because of the hundreds or even thousands of lives that will be saved on account of the timely discovery of a bomb or the pre-emption of a terror plot. However, the argument only stands on the existence of two conditions. First, law enforcement agents must be one hundred percent sure that they have in their custody a terrorist with first-hand knowledge of an impending terror attack. It is not enough to have in custody a suspected terrorist or even a known terrorist but someone who is not privy to information that something is about to go down that will harm the lives of innocent civilians.

Law enforcement agencies will have a very hard time in complying with these two conditions. If they have a suspected terrorist in their custody then they cannot use torture because it does not satisfy the two conditions mentioned earlier. In other words the best that they can do is to investigate even further. If they have a known terrorist in their custody, they still cannot use torture because there is no ticking bomb that they have to deal with. The best course of action is to arrest the terrorist and this terrorist must remain under their custody pending trial.

Now, what if there will come a time when law enforcement agents are confronted with a real-case TBS? In a real ticking bomb scenario there is a confirmed terrorist under their custody and that there is one hundred percent certainty that this terrorist can supply the critical information to defuse the bomb or prevent others from executing their plan. Although the pieces are set, interrogators cannot use torture unless they have the necessary training to conduct an investigation using torture as a primary tool. If interrogators cannot prove beforehand that they are experts in using torture, then they cannot proceed based on two reasons: 1) accuracy and 2) safety.

The interrogator intent on using torture must know how to extract information. It is easy to make a person suffer but the ability to make that person divulge sensitive information requires skill. It cannot be done haphazardly or else the detainee will simply provide false information to stop the torture. The law enforcement agency has to act on the information given even if this is not yet verified. Upon the discovery that they were defective information, the torture continues and when the detainee can no longer handle the pain the same reaction is repeated and the interrogators are forced to accept another set of false information.

A non-expert must not be allowed to use torture for safety reasons. If torture is allowed in extreme cases, there is one condition that is non-negotiable and that is to ensure the safety of the prisoner or the detainee. Excessive force and violence may be authorized in extreme cases based on the TBS context but no one is permitted to take life. In addition, a prisoner going through the torture process will do anything to survive. When the pain threshold has been breached the tortured individual is willing to kill in order to put an end to his or her suffering. Therefore, torture endangers the lives not only of the detainee but also the operative charged to use torture.

Based on the requirements of the need to assure accuracy and safety, it is imperative that experts are the only people allowed to use torture. But where will the training come from? A reliable training methodology requires an institution that takes care of standards. In order to produce experts there should be a school. It can be argued that the school does not have to be the size of a small college; nevertheless, investments have to be made. More importantly, it becomes a part of society. In other words, children will know of its existence. The mainstream media will report on the establishment and continuous operation of the said school.

There is no other choice but to keep it secret. But it will never remain secret for long. The moment that it becomes public, this nation will make more enemies than friends. The anger of terrorists will burn even brighter and their hatred towards this nation becomes justified. The major implication is that this nation loses its moral compass and it can no longer lead others and influence leaders in issues that are crucial to freedom and progress. Another major consequence is the kind of treatment that this country’s soldiers and citizens are going to receive if they are captured or imprisoned overseas. As a result, this nation will be perceived as evil and therefore anything can be done against it without remorse.

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The Abu Ghraib scandal created an international backlash because of the position of the United States and members of the coalition forces in the international area. The United States and the United Kingdom are perceived as two of the most important leaders in the free world. Democracy is characterized by the rule of law and the importance of human rights. It is therefore imperative that the US and the UK behave in such a manner that will allow the rest of the world to continually follow their example. The United States earned international sympathy after the September 11 terror attacks but it earned only ridicule after the Abu Ghraib scandal.

There is no justification to the use of torture. It is much more effective to use proven interrogation techniques rather than to use force and violence to pressure a suspect or a known terrorist to divulge information regarding a terror plot. Those who argue in favour of torture cannot provide a documented case wherein all the factors required are present to authorize the use of torture. Nevertheless, even if these factors exist this nation must take the moral high ground and prohibit the use of torture. The TBS argument is only used to provoke the emotions of those who are involved but other than that there is no clear example of a TBS event that requires torture.

It requires the confluence of so many factors before torture can be used in a TBS event. It is highly improbable that law enforcement officers are able to apprehend a suspect or known terrorist right after he or she has armed a bomb. It can happen in movies but highly unlikely in real life. In the event that a terrorist succeeds in arming a bomb it would then be too late for anyone to reverse the outcome of the event. The best way to combat terrorism whether home-based or foreign-born is to intensify the intelligence gathering capability of the intelligence community. It is imperative to stop the flow of funds from financiers to designated terror groups. It is also important to limit their capability to buy weapons and explosives. There must be greater coordination between different branches of government especially when it comes to law enforcement agencies.

The use of torture places freedom loving nations into a terrible position. It is a bottomless pit without end. The moment it becomes a national policy, then it opens a Pandora’s Box full of problems. There will come a time when law enforcement agents will be encouraged to use torture not on terrorists but suspected criminals involved in crimes that are not related to national security. The policy of using torture is prone to abuse. It can easily be misused. If the law enforcement officer has a personal grudge against a suspect, then he or she can use torture to inflict pain on his or her enemy.

The rule of law is a solid foundation in this country. According to the law, a suspect is deemed innocent unless proven guilty. This assumption creates a layer of protection against innocent persons. It is easy to make a mistake when it comes to information gathering and the investigation strategies used by law enforcement agencies are prone to error. Therefore, it is important to protect the reputation of suspects. At the same time, democracy is founded on the principle of sharing power. There is no entity that monopolizes power in the same way that a dictatorship focuses power on one man or organization. But the use of torture enables law enforcers to be judge and executioner at the same time.

Nothing of significance can come out of torture. The prohibition against torture must stand at all times. There is no justification for its use. This assertion must remain true especially for leaders of the free world. This planet is embroiled in different types of conflict both regional and international. It requires stability from governments that can assure citizens of the world that there is a law with the power to build and not destroy. But if one engages in torture then no one can be trusted. Torture is barbaric. It reduces a civilization built through hundreds of years of hard work and dedication to anarchy. Torture is synonymous to anarchy. Torture means that man has given up all hope and can no longer use his superior intellect to solve problems that he has to rely on brute force.


Torture must not be permitted to become a part of standard interrogation techniques. The TBS argument may be a valid argument but it is based on an emotional response to a perceived terror threat. But using rule of law and reason it was discovered that a TBS event is highly improbable. It is extremely difficult to create an event where all the pieces fit together. In the case of TBS there must be a known terrorist under the custody of law enforcement agents and that they have to know for a fact that this particular terrorist has direct knowledge regarding an ongoing terror plot. There is therefore the need for extreme measures but the only problem is that there is no such event. If truth be told, the moment that a terrorist succeeded in arming a bomb it is already too late for law enforcement agencies to react. Therefore, the best way to deal with terror threats is to improve the intelligence gathering capability of the intelligence community. The moment that leaders of the free world officially sanction the use of torture is the beginning of the unravelling of Western civilization. The purpose of extreme measures is to locate a ticking bomb but the unexpected outcome is the increase in the number of people that now have the justification to launch terror attacks on the Western world. The use of torture is a point of no return. The prohibition on torture must stand till the end of time.


Addicott, J. (2004). Terrorism Law: The Rule of Law and the War on Terror. AZ: Lawyer & Judges Publishing Company.

Association for the Prevention of Torture. (2007). Defusing the Ticking Bomb Scenario: Why we must say No to Torture, Always. Switzerland: Association for the Prevention of Torture.

Gilbert, M. (2002). The Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. New York: Routledge.

Giraldo, J., & Trinkunas, H. (2007). Terrorism Financing and State Response. CA: Stanford University Press.

Hamzeh, A. (2004). In the Path of Hizbullah. New York: Syracuse University Press.

Harik, J. (2005). Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Juergensmeyer, M. (2003). Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. CA: University of California Press.

Luban, D. (2005). Liberalism, torture, and the ticking bomb. Virginia Law Review, 91, 1425-1461.

Smith, P. (2008). The Terrorism Ahead: Confronting Transnational Violence in the Twenty First Century. M.E. Sharpe Publishers.

Stern, J. (2003). Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. New York: Harper Collins.

Turner, M. (2005). Why Secret Intelligence Fails. VA: Potomac Books, Inc.

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