The Necessary Hypocrisy of Torture

Assume you came to pick up your child from school and found the building locked. A terrorist had hidden a bomb inside and locked the doors with your child inside. You manage to get in. The bomb will go off in 15 minutes—not enough time to search for it or call the police. You have caught the terrorist and tied him up, but he refuses tell you where the bomb is. What do you do?

Ah. There is a deep sink in the kitchen… Time is short and you must decide: Should you dunk him and make him tell you? Which is to be sacrificed, your conscience or your child?

Now let’s change the question: What if the child at risk is not yours? She is a stranger to you. Would you still sully your conscience—not to mention break the law—to save her? You find this harder to answer.

What if ten other children are about to be killed? What about one hundred? What price should others pay for your own insistence on the purity of your ideals, and your conscience? On the other hand, why should you act against your conscience for something that does not affect you and yours? Especially when the law compels you not to act?

Your hypocrisy is necessary for a civilized society. In every society, there’s a need for some “necessary evil” to be performed if society is to survive.

This Socratic dialogue is bound to make you uncomfortable, because chances are you have never had to approach a question of moral choice this way. Focusing on the personal impact of moral decisions may be uncomfortable for those who exhort morality at the expense of others, with no cost to themselves. It is easy to pontificate about hypotheticals: People often exhort others to do one thing, but do another thing entirely when faced with its cost to their own kin. Where would you stand if the costs of inaction were to hit you and yours?

Let’s go to the final version of the question: You are locked inside your child’s school, listening to the infernal tick-tock of the hidden bomb. The terrorist is tied up in the chair besides a sink full of water. But now it is not you who has caught him, but an agent of the U.S. government, working within his capacity as an officer commissioned by a president whom you elected. Luckily the agent does the necessary deed with the sink, finds the bomb and saves your child. However, a month later a major newspaper exposes his deed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece.

Do you think that the attorney general should prosecute the agent after saving your child’s life? No, I did not think so. Neither would I. But should we? And what if he had saved someone else’s child? Or hundreds of other children? What if they were adults? Would your answer be different then?


Civilized Hypocrisy

This is not a trick question, but a deadly serious one. Since none of the children in the hypothetical school—similar to the real towers of the World Trade Center—is yours, the ticking bomb threatens the lives of strangers, and those who must save their lives are strangers to you also. But does it matter? Should your willingness to grant a government agent a torture exemption suddenly wobble or perhaps disappear? If a government agent aims to save your child, you would let him bend the rules, but if he intends to save others’ lives, you would have him prosecuted? Are you not ashamed of yourself and your hypocrisy?

You should not be. Your hypocrisy is necessary for a civilized society. In every society, there’s a need for some “necessary evil” to be performed if society is to survive. But a moral society cannot admit this nasty fact, even to itself. Hence our collective hypocrisy in shunning the agent for the dirty deed he has done, albeit for our sake. And so, to keep society moral, we must deride him publicly, so we can tell ourselves that we would never have done such a thing.

But is it fair? Should the law perhaps absolve the agent of all such deeds in advance? Certainly not. A blanket exemption would carry its own terrible cost, but so, unfortunately, does a blanket condemnation—because evil does exist and those who fight it in the shadows on our behalf must occasionally do what Thomas More would not: Bend the rules to fight the Devil, to prevent him from destroying those we love.

Should we then prosecute the agent? The inevitable answer is that we must but bring him before a jury of his peers. And that jury should be reminded of its power to disregard both judge’s instructions and the law, if it thinks them unjust. This is such an awesome power that it is often all but illegal to inform juries of it. However, it does exist. Because the law deals with generalizations, and morality, unfortunately, often cannot be generalized; and when it comes to matters of moral specifics, juries are the best tool we have.

If the agent did what was truly necessary to save lives, even if what he did was morally doubtful, once the facts are laid bare, there is probably not a jury in the land that would convict him, no matter how immoral the deed appears to some. And it should also be remembered that, should a jury of his peers feel obligated to convict him under the law nonetheless, the power to pardon the agent or grant him clemency still lies with the president, under whose authority he was acting.

But what if the deed was not truly necessary? What if there were no kids or no bomb and the agent was simply using torture to shorten the path to uncovering information by taking a moral shortcut? Then the agent would most likely be found guilty and punished. And the possibility of having this distinction made legally is, after all, what those empowered to use violence in our defence, as well as all of us as citizens, are fighting for.

[Photo credit: Hans Jesus Wurst via Flickr Commons]


Avner Mandelman is a Canadian hedge fund manager who served in the Israeli Air Force during the Six-Day war. He has a B.Sc. from the Israeli Technion, and an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. His literary thriller, The Debba, was long-listed for the Canadian Giller Prize; and his book, The Sleuth Investor, is used as a textbook in MBA investment programs. He lives in Toronto.



  1. david 19 September, 2014 at 13:46 Reply

    Nice article. The idea of such acts (either transgressive or systemic) and the consequences for the person is very interesting to me – moral injury is a challanging idea and uncomfortable discussion – especially when prefaced with a scenario like yours. Nice work sir.

  2. Wayne Shepherd 19 September, 2014 at 14:21 Reply

    As the article points out, the use of torture must be evaluated in context, and it is sometimes justified. To me, the answer is obvious in the school-bomb context. Torture the guy to find out where the bomb is located. You are acting in defense of others who are vulnerable and unable to help themselves. Who would take issue with shooting and possibly killing the terrorist if he is about the push a button and explode the bomb? No one would object! Torture falls short of killing most of the time, and if it produces the same result of saving others, then do it. Torture falls within the use of force continuum, not outside of it.

  3. John 19 September, 2014 at 15:29 Reply

    Perhaps the example is not a good one. 15 minutes is plenty of time to evacuate a building but not long enough to extract actionable intelligence and then use it. First, evacuate the building. After that, what happens to the terrorist is his problem. If he is the only person in the building it does not matter whether or not the bomb gets defused.

  4. Rev. Jim Bridges 19 September, 2014 at 17:31 Reply

    I find this essay misleading and deceitful. It presents a scenario no one will likely ever face and asks questions of what one would be willing to do, even though most people, should they ever be faced with such a scenario, would not have the means or wherewithal to act upon. Plus, this essay makes the FALSE assumption that torture produces reliable, valid information which can then be successfully used.

    What this article attempts to do is pull a cloud of moral indecisiveness and ambiguity over a question that can be clearly answered. Torture is immoral under all circumstances. And lest anyone wonder, yes, I would refuse to torture someone even if it were to save a loved one, for I firmly believe torture does not work in eliciting valid information.

  5. Paul Clarke 19 September, 2014 at 18:42 Reply

    Mr. Mandelman sets up a false argument regarding the “ticking time bomb scenario.” There are several problems with this logic. The first is that the ticking time bomb scenario doesn’t happen much – if at all. Second, is that there is no guarantee that torture will get you the confession of truth. As we have seen in other tortured confessions, the tortured person will say things that are not true, possibly misleading the authorities. The third issue is that states that use torture get rightly designated as … states that use torture, and in the process, they lose some of their claim to be civilized. And, as we have seen in the cases where the US used torture, we used the technique broadly – in the case of Abu Ghraib against a whole class of individuals who happened to be in the wrong place.

    Mr. Mandelman does not call for the application of torture, noting instead, “blanket exemption would carry its own terrible cost, but so, unfortunately, does a blanket condemnation.” But, again, the scenario does not happen, so what is the “terrible cost” that the author thinks a civilized nation pays for banning torture? In fact, the author wants us to see utility in the focused use of torture. And, of course, there is little evidence that this is either practically effective or pragmatically ethical.

    The author does get one thing right, “Your hypocrisy is necessary for a civilized society. In every society, there’s a need for some “necessary evil” to be performed if society is to survive.” But the ticking time bomb scenario is the not the example of this concept, because it doesn’t happen, so the idea that torture is the “necessary evil” for “society to survive” creates a false dilemma between torture and survival.

    Rather, the true example of society using “necessary evil” is much more mundane and common – the decision to use military force. Using force, even in a purely defensive, is a decision to kill children and other innocents – that is the outcome of the application of military force, even when done judiciously and toward good purpose. It will eventually lead to the killing of innocents. The decision to use brutal, sustained force even at high cost to civilian populations during WWII helped destroy the fascist, genocidal Axis regimes which was truly necessary for civilized societies to survive … and we killed innocents in the process. That is enough hypocrisy and “necessary evil” for any civilized society.


    • Jager Oster 22 September, 2014 at 16:30 Reply

      Torture, has been manifest enforcement to sway persuasion for philosophical ends. There, is its rampant predation on morality. To mention a very few examples, debtor prisons,slavery, subliminal suggestion, rape, incest, racism, appendage amputation, censure, etc, etc,.

      Article 6 of the UN convention defines very explicit guidelines for determining “what is a war criminal”.

  6. Cliff Sherrill 23 September, 2014 at 00:03 Reply

    Relying on an acquittal, a pardon, or clemency is insufficient as that means the agent must bear the financial costs of the trial. These are enormous for the agent as the government will claim that the alleged “torture” was not in the course of official responsibility and thus refuse to cover legal expenses. For the agent, this means legal expenses that will wreck him AND his family, even if the end result is an acquittal.

    • Jager Oster 24 September, 2014 at 14:07 Reply

      Assuming there would be a “trial”. In the greater context of torture in general, renditions are not always brought to public scrutiny. Or as is the Standard Operating Procedure of War Criminals and Nazi regimes, there are no Juries only Jurists.

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