Where are the ticking time bombs?
April 10, 2009 7:43 PM   Subscribe

I am collecting examples of the “Ticking Time Bomb Scenario” in fiction, film/tv, and journalism.

The TTB scenario is the fantasy of a single “pure” act of torture that averts an imminent terrorist attack. It first appears, according to authorities such as Darius Rejali and Jane Mayer, in Jean Lartéguy’s 1960 novel “Les Centurions,” set during the Algerian civil war, and has been a staple tactic of torture apologists during the US “War on Terror,” offered perhaps most controversially by Alan Dershowitz in his argument in favor of torture warrants. It is also a routine plot device in the Fox series 24. According to the document “Defusing the Ticking Time Bomb Scenario” by the Association for the Prevention of Torture, “It is worth distinguishing the question of what moral response society should take in anticipation of a realistic ticking bomb scenario, from the question of what any individual person would or would not in fact do were they to find themselves in such circumstances. The way in which the ticking bomb scenario is most often posed is designed to blur these lines, and this is one of its most dangerous and insidious effects.” [19]

I want to collect as many of these scenarios as possible. I'm especially interested in descriptions of TTB situations that actually imagine specific details of the impending catastrophe and the torture used to avert it. (This was almost my first FPP, and it is probably destined to show up on Projects, but for now, I really need help in compiling examples that aren't mentioned above).
posted by Mngo to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
There's one in "Face/Off."
posted by Kirklander at 7:57 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Daniel Silva is a fiction author and most of his books involve the clashing of Islamic terrorists and Isreal's secret service. An example of the scenario you're talking about can be found in his book The Secret Servant. It features the roadside torturing of someone in order to obtain details of an imminent suitcase bomb attack.
posted by ODiV at 8:01 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure if you're only looking for fiction, but if not, you might be interested in the Israeli Supreme Court case of The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel v. The State of Israel. It's almost certainly the best-known legal case to directly address the issue of the "ticking time-bomb" scenario. The New York Times had a decent summary of the decision when it the ruling came down. You can find the full opinion here (PDF).
posted by DavidNYC at 8:22 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Way back before 9/11, in 1998, there was the movie The Siege, which didn't do tremendously well at the box office, but had a top-notch cast. Terrorists threaten NYC, martial law is declared, and there's a sub-plot about the dispute between the FBI and the CIA in the use of torture (and the eventual death of the suspect) in a TTB scenario.

The movie also has a sub-plot about the military rounding up everyone in NYC with a Muslim name, with one the FBI agent's sons arrested randomly.

Looking back, the movie was quite prescient.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:34 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are lots of examples from the TV series 24. The earliest one I can think of is at the beginning of Season 2, when an un-named man is seen to be tortured in South Korea to reveal the details of a terrorist attack. The attack is revealed to be a nuclear attack on Los Angeles within the day. The method seems to involve repeatedly delivering electric shocks via bags of fluid attached to the victim's hands and feet.

In later series there are more up-close-and-personal examples where the protagonist himself threatens people, the threats are generally weapons of mass destruction, the forms of torture are either improvisational (knives feature heavily) or professional (sensory deprivation and injections of some kind of "pain drug.") More here.
posted by so_necessary at 12:24 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's a scenario like this in the Stargate Atlantis episode "Critical Mass" (#13 of the second season). There is a bomb wired to go off quite soon in Atlantis, and one of the characters, Ronon, offers to torture the prime suspect in order to find out where it is and how to disarm it. The leader of the expedition, Dr. Weir, is determined not to resort to this but finally she has no choice but to let him do it.

Ronon goes into the room where suspect is, pulls out a knife threateningly, and then the scene switches to somewhere else in the city where somebody else is revealed as the real perpetrator.

The most interesting thing about this, and this part is probably the kind of thing you're looking for, is that after the bomb is disarmed, they remember about the other guy and rush into the room, where Ronon is standing over his prone body. There's a really tense moment where you're supposed to be pondering over the moral implications of it, and then Ronon says, "He fainted before I could ask him anything."

Stargate Atlantis is pretty full of messy moral dilemmas, actually, a lot of them involving hostages and terrorists*.
SGA fans refer to the Genii in particular as the Amish Mafia or Amish Nazis
posted by lolichka at 2:49 AM on April 11, 2009

Die Hard 3!
posted by Mach5 at 7:24 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's this episode of Battlestar Galactica.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 10:51 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Great help so far.
Mach5, thanks, I'll definitely check out Die Hard3--specific scene?
Don't know SGAtlantis at all, thanks lolichka.
KJS, I actually wrote a little about that BSG ep here, if you're intereested. Very undeveloped thinking, but I imagine that if I were a TV critic, which I'm def not, I would be interested in juxtaposing the 24 examples with BSG.
So_Nec, thanks for the link, but I'm all over that article, and JM's reporting in general. I think there's probably more to the 24 story, and sometime I should go lurk on some 24 fan boards or something.
DNYC: that is a classic.
Anyway, eager for more suggestions.
posted by Mngo at 3:49 PM on April 11, 2009

In Lost (Season One) one character is suffering from near-fatal asthma attacks but her medication has been stolen. Sayid tortures the suspected thief (Sawyer) to ascertain their whereabouts using physical force. It's later revealed that that the torture victim is not in fact responsible.
posted by so_necessary at 10:00 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

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