Is Torture The Answer for Terrorism?

Ken Roth and Alan Dershowitz

Ken Roth and Alan Dershowitz on CNN

The ticking time bomb scenario, a popular thought experiment that still stirs debate of whether or not torture could be justifiable. In this experiment, a terrorist is captured and has information about a hidden bomb and or terrorist attack that will kill many people, and it is only through torture that they would confess. The experiment is in itself simple and possibly improbable if one were to analyze the logic of it, but it is more important to focus on the point it is trying to make. If one were put in such an extreme situation, should torture be carried out or should ethics and morality overrule it?

In Dershowitz’s opinion, perhaps it may be best to go through with the procedure. Alan Dershowitz,a Harvard university professor in law, suggested this while adding that a “torture warrant” should also be created for that occasion. He became famous on his stance when he has written books and articles about his reasoning. On March 3rd, 2003, he debated with Ken Roth in Washington (CNN), it was then published on their site and titled “Dershowitz: Torture could be justified”.

I enjoyed reading the argument between both men, as they present both opposite sides of the spectrum in their opinions on the use of torture against terrorists. Ken Roth is an executive director of the Human Rights Watch, and he is very firm on his stance on the prohibition of torture. He connected his claim by comparing it to killing the innocent civilians during war, that there is a reason why international law prohibits it, therefore, torture is no exception. He also gives evidence that Israel’s use of torture on 90 percent of  their palestinian detainees resulted in the Supreme Court admitting the torture “isn’t working” when stopping terrorists. He ends his arguments by concluding that there are more effective methods of retrieving information to stop terrorism and that by allowing Dershowitz idea of “torture warrants” it opens the door to the ends justifying the means, or better said, that a person could perform any immoral, inhumane acts if it lead to a preferred end.

Dershowitz argument, on the other hand, can come off as less appealing and even irrational in comparison to Roth’s words. In the beginning of the interview, Dershowitz answers the interviewer’s question on whether or not Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s capture is a ticking time bomb scenario to allow torture, in which he responds that there is a lack of evidence to prove that it is and therefore, no torture should be applied. However, he quickly states that “low-level people” should not administer the torture unless given permission by a higher authority. It is strange how he added this comment in when it has no regard to the question in general. He also constantly barrages Roth that other countries have constantly violated the laws of the Geneva Accord, and tortured their prisoners and so it would be better if the United States were to allow torture instead of hiding it in the shadows about it. These responses make Dershowitz look very cynical and unreasonable if someone were to read this at first glance. In a way, it makes Roth look much better in comparison, as he would then be framed as a man with a stronger ethical stance and humanity than Dershowitz.

I understand Dershowitz’s point as to why he brings about the various violations of the international law about torture, in that it is not simply a black and white issue. It is like killing someone in self defense, everyone can agree that killing someone is wrong, but there are very special occasions in which killing may be a last resort and even then there are limitations of that. Sadly, Dershowitz has failed in his attempt to express more of his reasonings as to why he believes torture is like a resort. Roth gains the upperhand in the debate, especially since he has the last word for it.

If anything, the debate looks to either affirm the belief that torture overall is wrong. The lack of counter arguments on Roth only adds to this. He claims that a torture warrant will make situations worse by using Israel as an example of their failed use of their use of torture to stop terrorism. The problem with this is that Israel is a completely different country than the United States. Though Dershowitz very briefly talks about this, it is true Israel has directly confronted this issue and decided it should be banned. Worse is the lack of information of what were the warrants to allow torture, how they tortured, who they tortured, it is important to provide this in order to understand why it has failed. I can easily say that a republic-democratic government does not work due to the chaos created between states when America was first established. As of now, we have created many laws, limitations, and relationships to prove our system is not as horrible as it has first begun. Yes, there were failures and experimentation, but maybe that is what should be done.

I understand that torture has been used for entertainment, such as the incident in Abu Ghraib, but what if it was controlled as Dershowitz has suggested? There is no one arguing that torturing innocent lives is okay, but if there is a situation where some rapist and murderer has information that would be useful in saving lives, would the table turns?

On February 2nd, 2016, I was engaged in a debate on this same topic. It was in my Humanities class and the students were grouped and told which opinion they should of being against or for torture in the ticking time bomb situation. I was grouped with the for ticking time bomb, and it did align with my personal opinion. I admit, I was not the most prepared for the debate, and I regret my lack of participation and poor answers as to why Dershowitz’s ideas should be considered and right.
The whole process did not change my mind too much, but it did give me some clarity and diversity of opinions from other students about the subject. It was a nice change of pace and it was interesting to know that there some had very mixed feelings about it. I am not for torture but if the case is very extreme, and with correct supervision over the whole process to avoid a Stanford Experiment case, I believe that it could work, it just needs the right regulations.


Cited Works:

“Dershowitz: Torture Could Be Justified.” CNN. Cable News Network, 4 Mar. 2003. Web. 05 Feb. 2016. <;.



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