The Ticking Bomb Scenario

Military necessity admits of all direct destruction of life or limb of armed enemies, and of other persons whose destruction is incidentally unavoidable in the armed contests of the war; it allows of the capturing of every armed enemy, and every enemy of importance to the hostile government, or of peculiar danger to the captor; it allows of all destruction of property, and obstruction of the ways and channels of traffic, travel, or communication, and of all withholding of sustenance or means of life from the enemy; of the appropriation of whatever an enemy's country affords necessary for the subsistence and safety of the Army, and of such deception as does not involve the breaking of good faith either positively pledged, regarding agreements entered into during the war, or supposed by the modern law of war to exist. Men who take up arms against one another in public war do not cease on this account to be moral beings, responsible to one another and to God. —General Order No. 100, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, Section 15

     Consider the following hypothetical situation: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in the midst of a large city. It is connected to a timer which is set to go off in, let’s say, three hours. The only way to prevent the catastrophic mass murder of literally millions of people is to find the bomb and defuse it, or just turn off the timer. Now, the terrorist who planted the bomb and knows where it is has been captured; the only way to find the bomb is by him disclosing its whereabouts; and he of course, being a self-righteous terrorist, is smug as hell and isn’t talking. So—in such a case, would torture of this person for the purpose of extracting such vital information be excusable?

     From an uncompromising, hardline orthodox Buddhist point of view the answer is clear: It is never right to deliberately assault or harm another conscious being, including a human of course, even if doing so will save the lives of ten million others, all of them much better people than a smug terrorist and mass murderer. The millions dead would be the terrorist’s doing and responsibility, not anyone else’s. BUT, from a practical, worldly, down-to-earth point of view, the perspective of a common person functioning in society, not an uncompromisingly virtuous and idealistic Buddhist saint, what then? Should the terrorist be tortured to compel him to reveal the location of the bomb? Wouldn’t it be the duty of, say, the government to do such a thing?

     When recently, as a result of karmic, metaphysical synchronicity, or the invisible hand of a guiding deity mysteriously maintaining cosmic balance, the Internet connection here crashed and I was offline for many days, I was motivated to read books more than I usually do; and after finally grinding my way through Kevin MacDonald’s dull but monumental The Culture of Critique I wanted to read something light and easy. So I read a rather bad military science fiction novel entitled A Desert Called Peace, by Thomas Kratman. Though the author is no Dostoevsky, or even a Heinlein, he is an ex military officer who knows about war, loves his country, and thoroughly despises political correctness, globalist progressivism, and leftist propaganda outlets like CNN, and he raises some valid ethical points regarding war, and the effective prosecution of it.

     (As I say, the novel is pretty badly written. Part of the problem is that the author injects way too many chapters promulgating his personal views on how soldiers should be trained, which greatly distracts from the main plot. Two other novels written by Kratman, probably more worth a curious reader’s while, are A State of Disobedience and Caliphate; the first being a rather amusing and very thinly veiled account of what would happen if Hillary Clinton became first lesbian President of the USA, established a repressive socialistic authoritarian state, and provoked the state of Texas to secede from the Union, resulting in civil war; and the second, which I haven’t read yet, being a speculative account of what happens when/if western Europe is conquered and subjugated by Muslims. He also has written an interesting and informative article on, or rather against, women in the military, based largely on his own military experience, entitled “The Amazon’s Right Breast.” All of this is available online for free at Baen Books.)

     Anyway, a philosophical case brought up by Major Kratman in his aforementioned badly written novel is the issue of torture. I consider torture to be worse than murder. I suppose torturing another human being is about the worst, most unethical thing that a person could possibly do, especially if the torture is of the gruesome, excruciating, mutilating, irreversibly damaging kind. Kratman apparently agrees. But even so, it could be argued that just about anything done to that terrorist to compel him to state the location of the nuclear bomb, thereby saving millions of lives, would be justified.

     But, if one assents to the permissibility of torture in such an extreme case as this, however reluctantly and with qualifications, the door is effectively opened for torture under some possible circumstances, and the prohibition on such an atrocity—and it certainly is an atrocity—is no longer absolute. The door is opened to the idea that moral outrages like torture are sometimes justified and permissible. So then lines must be drawn with regard to which atrocities a reasonable government or military intelligence unit should be allowed to perpetrate in the name of, say, national security.

     As an aside, I will observe that atrocities and abominations can creep up gradually, being justified step by step until they are accepted in full flower as a matter of course. Consider the Allied bombing of civilian targets, of large European cities, during World War 2. At the beginning of the war the Germans had overwhelming air superiority, especially in Europe, so that British bombers were able to make bombing runs to attack German military targets such as factories only at night, when the Germans couldn’t see them. But by the same token the British couldn’t see their bombing targets either, this being long before the advent of GPS, infrared sighting, and smart bombs; and so the only semi-effective way of taking out a strategic target like a factory, often located in a populous city, was saturation bombing in the hopes that the target would be destroyed along with a great deal of collateral damage to civilian targets. By the time the Allies had air superiority over Europe this strategy of bombing cities full of civilian non-combatants had already become standard procedure; and so it continued as expedient long after the original reasons for it no longer applied. Thus the atrocity of bombing cities progressed from a very unfortunate strategic necessity to the fire bombing of Dresden, and later to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It came to be accepted as a convenient method for demoralizing the enemy and crippling their economy.

     For that matter, coming closer to home, there are now the folks who insist upon importing millions of Muslim migrants into western society, especially in Europe, which definitely increases the amount of violent crime, including terrorist attacks, and all in the name of multiculturalism and tolerance. This is a more subtle but no less real case of a road to hell paved with good intentions. Another, similar example would be western neo-Marxists in general hating and attacking their own civilization, damnably ignorant of the fact that in many or even most respects it is the best civilization in the history of the world thus far, and also the fact that what they want to replace it with is grotesquely inferior in most respects, if only because the ideals of the radical left do not translate well into actual reality.

     Thus there is clearly a danger in justifying or allowing atrocities, especially as mere political expedients (consider Antifa or the radical left in general); yet some atrocities are plausibly justified, even necessary from the point of view of existential survival. This is an ugly fact. It is also a rather obvious illustration of the point I make again and again on this blog, namely that adhering to what is good and right from a moral perspective may be civilizational suicide from a practical one. Preferring unrealistic ideals (like completely abolishing violence in self-defense) to harsh worldly realities for an entire society or culture is a kind of politically correct mass insanity.

     Getting back to Kratman’s badly written novel, a few other, similar cases he brought up for amoral consideration included strategic killing of the innocent. (There is a scene in the story in which an assassin hired to eliminate a high-level Muslim terrorist charges $50,000 to kill the entire family, including teenage children, but $100,000 to kill only the primary target, the terrorist, because he knows that traditional Muslims are extremely family- and clan-oriented and will certainly initiate a blood vendetta if they survive.) This case is somewhat reminiscent of the aforementioned case of the Allied bombing of civilian targets. Also: prohibiting humanitarian aid into a war zone, when much of it is siphoned off to aid enemy combatants; making military training so rigorous that approximately 1% of recruits die before ever seeing combat against an enemy; and preventing anti-American propagandists like CNN from doing their morale-wrecking, dishonest propagandizing in a war zone. With regard to that last point, the novel does include an interesting scene in which an entire “GNN” camera crew is lined up and shot by the “good guys” for aiding and abetting Islamist insurgents.

     The moral of the story: If you are suicidal, then you had best go off and kill yourself in private, and not try to take the rest of your civilization with you. Somewhat similarly, and more to the point, if you insist upon uncompromising ethical purity, you would do well to renounce this necessarily harsh world and take upon yourself a more dedicated spiritual lifestyle, in accordance with the advice of some of the world’s greatest sages and saints, including Gotama Buddha and Jesus of Nazareth. On the other hand, if you are primarily motivated by pacifistic, compassionate, and/or timid feminine sentiment rather than by genuinely spiritual ideals, then you should consider staying at home and letting the men do what needs to be done, or else maybe emigrate to Feminist Sweden.

     Concluding this black pill on a more traditionally Buddhist note, I direct your attention to a peculiar old Buddhist legend called the Temiya Jātaka. In it, the Buddha, in a previous life, was born the only son of an Indian king, and was thus the heir apparent to the kingdom. One day his doting royal father had him, the infant prince, on his lap while attending to his business as king. Some violent criminals were brought to him in shackles, and the king ordered their execution, probably in a very grisly, traditionally ancient Indian manner. The infant prince, the Bodhisatta, realized at that moment that being a king requires the ruthless execution of amoral political duties, including the ruthless execution of bandits and insurgents…and so he decided to spend the rest of his life pretending to be a deaf mute in order not to become the next king. After many years of this the king, in despair, ordered his son to be taken out somewhere and killed; whereupon the son, the next Buddha in a subsequent life, escaped, or rather converted the servant instructed to kill him, and became a spiritual recluse. Eventually his father also, along with most of the rest of the kingdom, were converted to a more spiritual point of view and renounced the world, becoming religious forest dwellers. The point is that it was taken for granted by everyone, including the king himself, that worldly life in a functioning political system requires such amoral brutality from time to time, and so rather than trying to become a saintly, pacifistic king, he renounced not only the throne but the world of men.

     Unilateral pacifistic compassion in a harsh world is essentially equivalent to unilateral disarmament during a cold war. It is potentially suicidal, not only for an individual but for an entire nation. You may have the right to kill yourself (although your mother might feel differently about that), but you do not have the right to kill your entire civilization, regardless of an entire highway to hell’s worth of good intentions.

“…as a fine general on Old Earth, George S. Patton, once observed, the enemy loses his right to surrender if he hasn't done so by the time you close to three hundred meters. Again, by the common law of war and as a practical matter, it just works that way and it is never punished. And, frankly, an enemy who indicates a willingness to fight beyond the point that wisdom should tell him to stop if he wants to live has already indicated he does not want to live all that much and is simply too dangerous and unpredictable to take a chance on." —Tom Kratman, from A Desert Called Peace


  1. Yes...a moral dilemma at its best (or worst). The way I see it - no, torture should not be allowed, codified or regulated in terms of law.
    Having said that - it should be up to the individual(s) faced with a situation like the hypothetical nuclear terrorist, to deal with it. This might include anything and everything, including torture, maiming and anything else we may think of - to prevent mass slaughter.
    If someone has the moral fortitude to do what is necessary, he should be judged and absolved of responsibility.
    In a situation like this there are no good solutions: lesser evil may be justified - the point is not to get used to this.


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