I would like to propose another corollary to Godwin's Law. This new one posits that any argument about torture is automatically lost the minute someone mentions a "Ticking Time-Bomb" scenario. The fact I have to enclose this lunacy in quotation marks is sufficient, I think, to discredit it completely. However, in the interest of my own fatuousness, I'll go on.
The construction of the scenario is tortuous scholasticism. In what situation could we marshall the greatest good against the least amount of evil? Of course, this argument still presumes that in order to do good we must do evil. At one time, I might have agreed that this presumption is the more realistic, the more mature and sophisticated view of the world. But I grew up. The acceptability of doing harm to effect good is worn out with one's favorite jeans in high school. On that alone, the scenario fails.
It fails for a number of other reasons. The derivation of good from the evil act could only happen under ideal circumstances in which we could be guaranteed of reliable information from the tortured suspect. My understanding is that torture rarely produces reliable information in the field. I would suggest as well—since constructing scenarios from static has become au courant—that a suitably-motivated terrorist, confident that in a very short time his bomb will go off, will find the guile, strength, or cojones to put off giving Americans reliable information for just so long as he needs to.
The situation itself is besmeared with the saccharine jelly of Hollywood. Its very existence as an argumentative tool calls into serious doubt the ability of its proponents to separate reality from fantasy. Not that the situation is beyond all probability—but an argument to preserve the right to torture based on the incidence of this horribly implausible situation is as sensible as defending censorship in anticipation of the creation of jokes so funny as to be lethal.
On television, things like the "Ticking Time-Bomb" scenario work well. They are scripted, rehearsed, performed, and meticulously edited. If the interrogation in fact runs out of time, it's nothing for a journeyman editor to tweak the the sharp countdown graphics at the bottom of the screen so that everything syncs up. Forestall the bomb for two minutes while the hero's soliloquy mounts a swell of orchestral music. Everything's okay.
I think you will find that reality is much messier. Terrorists are wittier, special agents more reasonable, and threats simpler than the concoctions of overtaxed, overcaffeinated screenwriter minds. Once terrorists have been liberated from scripted roles, they will quickly exercise their freedom to not tell anyone where the bomb is, and if the Americans are quick to apply physical coercion, why, even the most fanatically-stultified minds can latch onto a dozen lies to remit the pain for just the crucial few hours. Lying, in fact, is one of humanity's greatest and—indeed—most native skills.
Moreover, we already have institutions in place for extraordinary times. Should we suppose that Hollywood really replaced reality and the scenario took place, and real American lives—thousands of them—were in jeopardy, and the only way to save them was to torture the information out of this one jihadi, whom we know will tell the truth and the whole truth upon the correct, judicious application of pain, then I ask you: who in his right mind would allow something as inconsequential as the Law to interfere with the rightful action?
This may sound absurd, or even sarcastic. I assure you, however, I am entirely sincere. I, at least, would not hesitate to do anything against the Law if I were assured of such a fantastically positive outcome. We all have many duties in life, to everything is due a piece of us, but only ever a piece. Even if the vast majority of us, it's only a piece. To justice is due something of me, to the Law and Society is due another slice, to morality and righteousness another, and so on. And I should be hopelessly fattening to any one of them if I didn't serve the others their share. And so the dictates of law and good policy, which say we should not torture ever, for any reason, shall have to go hungry if the the justice of saving thousands of lives is already famished.
In such a case, if the rest of us were also to follow our consciences and the will to do right, we should immediately after clamor for a pardon for whomever does the infliction, and no one who recognizes that law and policy are but tools for accomplishing peace and justice among imperfect men should refute clemency or pardon for that person. In such a way, we establish extraordinary means for the allowance of an extraordinary situation. The benefit is that all of this business remains strictly within the bounds of the extraordinary. The danger of its leaking from the extraordinary cask, onto our broad, bared, moribund backs, is therefore lessened.
But what are the preconditions for this extraordinariness? Nothing less than the fantastic. To justify all of the extraordinary measures I've just described, we should have to be utterly convinced that there was a bomb, that the only chance for finding and defusing it was to torture some soul, that the failure to do so would result in many horrible deaths, and that the torture was assured of being efficacious. Failing complete assurance of any of these—and the last is particularly suspect—the whole apparatus fails. We have then not so much an argument for the legitimacy of torture as for the over-eagerness of humankind.