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WMU Professor's book argues for torture in "ticking time bomb" cases

The Associated Press
Photo reviewed by U.S. Military Officials

Western Michigan University Philosophy Professor Fritz Allhoff says there are many problems with torture, but he says it can be justified in some cases to save lives. That’s the premise of Allhoff’s book Terrorism, Ticking Time-Bombs and Torture (University of Chicago Press). 

Allhoff told WMUK’s Gordon Evans that he was interested in the idea and wrote the book because there had not been a conservative treatment of torture from a philosophical standpoint.

In time-sensitive cases where torture could save many lives, Allhoff says it could be the lesser of two evils. He acknowledges that those are rare and extreme circumstances. Allhoff says he doesn’t believe that torture always works. But he says even if there is a 10% chance of torture working, it could be justified if it’s being done to save many lives. 

Credit University of Chicago Press

Alhoff says torture should remain illegal, and people who torture should be prosecuted. But he says they should be able to use the necessity defense, and be able to claim that torture was needed to save lives. Allhoff also says there should be training and oversight for any interrogational torture. 

Extended interview with Fritz Allhoff

But even in a book that argues that torture is justified in some cases, Allhoff says torture comes with many costs. He says those include the pain inflicted on the person tortured, desensitization to violence, and possibly exacerbating terrorism. Allhof says that has to go into calculus, and undermines the case for torture. But he says it doesn’t necessarily mean that torture should never happen.

The capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden sparked a new debate on torture (NPR story). There have been claims that torture led to information about the terrorist network leader’s whereabouts. While the use of torture to get information is in dispute, Allhoff says he’s not sure that killing Bin Laden meets his standards of a “ticking time bomb scenario.” Allhoff says Bin Laden’s operational control over Al Qaeda was in question and it’s not clear that killing him would stop any future attacks. Allhoff says killing Bin Laden could turn him into a martyr and lead to more attacks.

Allhoff says if torture is used as a way to get information, innocent people could end up being tortured. He says that’s obviously “very very bad.” But Allhoff says in the pursuit of valuable information, the torture of innocent people can be justified as collateral damage in the same way that the deaths of civilians can be justified during war.

In his book, Allhoff says torture does not address the root cause of terrorism. He says even in the most compelling case for torture, "it comes too late." Allhoff says it would be nice to live in a world without terrorism. But he says in an emergency situation where a bomb is getting ready to go off somewhere “what are we supposed to do about it?”

Gordon Evans became WMUK's Content Director in 2019 after more than 20 years as an anchor, host and reporter. A 1990 graduate of Michigan State, he began work at WMUK in 1996.