The "Ticking Bomb" Scenario

  • Posted on: 20 June 2014

The Israeli case

During the early stages of the disapearance of three Israelis in the West Bank on June 12, 2014, there has been no evidence of whether the abduction was made by an Arab or Palestinian party yet. Still Israel excluded any criminal element and launched a military campaign that included the arrest of 300 Palestinians. More over the Israeli government legal advisor, Yehuda Weinstein, has authorized the security forces to interrogate the arrested Palestinians under the “Ticking Bomb” protocol, in order to find the kidnapped in the right time, according to a report on Israel Army Radio.

What is a "Ticking Bomb" scenario?

A ticking bomb scenario has been recently debated amongst different strategic and intelligence communities, decision makers, academics, and human rights activists. The scenario under consideration is that a bomb has already been deployed and set on a timer to detonate in 24 hours in a public area resulting on considerable loss of civilian life. Security forces have arrested a suspect who alone knows the whereabouts of the bomb. The interrogators have overwhelming evidence proving that they have captured the right man. The suspect refuses to disclose the location of the bomb under interrogation. The interrogators ask for permission to conduct torture upon the suspect. The acceptance of such a demand comes under the “Ticking Bomb” protocol.


Is it legal?
From a legal perspective, several domestic and international laws have identified a clear position which outlaws the use of violence and torture by official entities. The Geneva Conventions clearly ban any use of “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture” (article 3:1(a). However these Conventions refer to prisoners of war (POW) and condemn such activities on a country’s own soil. The Geneva Conventions, therefore, do not apply to the situation under review. Moreover, the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay in terms of these Conventions, is legally permissible.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states the UN’s position on torture in Article 5: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” It also adds in the United Nations Convention Against Torture that the torture of civilians, combatants, POW, and terrorists is banned in any circumstance including the case of a ticking bomb scenario. This position is also supported by The Rome Statute of the international criminal court that describes torture as a “crime against humanity”.


Ethical Justification....
Ethically, there are concepts that have to be considered in determining whether the use of torture, in the circumstances described in the original “Ticking Bomb” scenario, can be justified. The Utilitarian Act states that torture can be justified if the total benefit derived from the action is greater than if the action had not been undertaken. In other words, if the torture of one leads to the saving of many, then it is an ethically accepted course to take. Dershowitz (2003), in effect, concurs that torture can be rationalized in a ticking bomb scenario. Luban (2007), on the other hand, states that the use of torture is never ethically acceptable in the modern world.

This task force tends to the views outlined in the Utilitarian Act and to the points made by Dershowitz. In addition the task force suggests that the primary human right, guaranteed by all major Conventions, is the right to life. In this context, therefore, the issue ultimately becomes one of whose human rights take precedence. The negation of the suspect's human rights by the use of torture, ensures those of a greater number of people are maintained.


Does torture work?
Pragmatically, we have to ask ourselves if torture will work on this particular suspect. Current knowledge suggests that inflicting the correct degree of pain will result in the response required being elicited. However, according to a new review of neuroscientific research, coercive interrogation techniques had many unintended negative effects on the suspect's memory and brain functions. It can also be argued that the infliction of pain can be counter-productive and used by the victim almost as a spiritual experience that strengthens their resolve.


In conclusion... 

There are three primary reasons that are used to justify the use of torture. Firstly, time constraints in effect rule out the use of other more normally acceptable methods of information extraction. Secondly, there is no possibility of acquiring the necessary information from sources other than the suspect, and, finally, the human rights of innocent civilians must take precedence over the rights of an enemy not to be tortured. These three pillars creates a base for the moral imperative of the interrogators which is to protect the lives of threatened citizens and this provides the ethical justification for any limited action that violates the rights of an individual.

The ticking bomb scenario is a minefield of ethical and legal dilemmas. The choice is promoted to be between the lesser of two evils rather than a simple choice between right and wrong. Several human rights activists and scholars have been arguing that the “Ticking Bomb” scenario is an unrealistic one, as it has never happened. More over the term has been used to justify the use of torture in cases that do not match the theoretical scenario. This can be clearly seen in the Israeli case of the three disappeared settlers. As in this case we have a collective arrest of 300 Palestinians initiated in few days, no solid evidence of who kidnapped the settlers, or if the incident is even politically motivated. Thus this case is far from being a "Ticking Bomb" scenario, as there is no identified suspect, no solid evidence that the suspect can provide extremely critical intelligence that can save lives of innocence. Still Mr. Yehuda Weinstein, gave the green light to the Israeli interrogators to initiate a "Ticking Bomb" protocol freely while interrogating "potential suspects" that have been previously profiled as "terrorists".



Bufacchi, Vittorio and Jean Maria Arrigo. "Torture, Terrorism and the State: a Refutation of the Ticking Bomb Argument," Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 23, No. 3, 2006. Pages 353-373.

Dershowitz, Alan M. "Chapter Four: Should the Ticking Bomb Terrorist be Tortured,” Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge. 2003. Pages 130-164.

ForeignPolicyMag. “Three Torture Myths” [Online]. 2008.Retrieved at:

ListVerse (2007) “Top 11 Methods of Interrogation”. [Online]. Retrieved at:

Luban, David. "Liberalism, Torture and the Ticking Bomb." Intervention, Terrorism, and Torture: Contemporary Challenges to Just War Theory. Springer Netherlands, 2007.