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Abbott and Costello Versus The Terrorist. Sam Harris and the Fallacy of The Ticking Time Bomb Scenario.

“It takes a terrifying spectacle to hold the people in check”

— Tuaut de La Bouverie

“They’re selling postcards of the hanging”

— Bob Dylan, Desolation Row


A staple of Abbott and Costello routines is a series of interconnected mistakes in either word meaning (Who’s on first) or location (the secret door that leads from one place to the lair of the villain) both of which lead to repetition, and absurdity.

The mishaps and misunderstandings are obvious to the audience but not to our heroes; or at least not until they have bungled their way in and out of multiple scares, near fatal encounters with assorted villains and their henchman, and finally arrived at the moment where they stumble into outsmarting (or out-dumbing) the bad guys.

We mention this because of the periodically recurring sham debate over how, and when, and why, it is or is not acceptable to use torture as a deterrent against terrorism, or as a means to prevent a terrorist from successfully launching a catastrophic attack. And we do not mean to belittle the seriousness of the issue by referencing a comedy act nor do we mean to belittle our comedic heroes by referencing clowns. Rather to highlight a built in absurdity, and assembly line quality to the both the sham and the depth of the participants. And we do that with apologies to Bud and Lou.

A specific and crucial aspect of this sham is the recurrent use of a specific scenario and the manner in which it is orchestrated, and has its parameters set by pseudo-intellectuals and assorted television and print demagogues.

The scenario in question is of course the ticking time bomb. The scenario has a set of slight variations but always contains the same general template.

First, the “counter-terrorism authorities” have captured a “terrorist.” The “terrorist” is known or assumed to have detailed or relevant information about an imminent plot that if successful, will cause massive casualties. The stakes are raised because of two factors. First the time span between arrest and detonation is short and the weapon is possibly, if not directly known to be one of mass destruction.

In this scenario the experts and the lay pundits ask: Is it not then acceptable to torture the captive to extract crucial information, and thus save tens of thousands if not millions of lives.

Into this version of the big muddy any number of people have ventured, and in numerous cases they make the case that in this scenario torture is justified.

We will here consider two advocates of the ticking time bomb justifies torture argument: Sam Harris and Charles Krauthammer.

Krauthammer makes the case that arguments against the efficacy of torture are false because experts have gone on record as saying it works.

“Did it work? The current evidence is fairly compelling. George Tenet said that the “enhanced interrogation” program alone yielded more information than everything gotten from “the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency put together.”

Michael Hayden, CIA director after waterboarding had been discontinued, writes (with former attorney general Michael Mukasey) that “as late as 2006 . . . fully half of the government’s knowledge about the structure and activities of al-Qaeda came from those interrogations.” Even Dennis Blair, Obama’s director of national intelligence, concurs that these interrogations yielded “high value information.” So much for the lazy, mindless assertion that torture never works.”

Of course what Krauthammer leaves out is that the experts were then, and are now operating under a vast blanket of secrecy. As a result not only do we not know if they are telling the truth, but Krauthammer is indirectly asserting that we should blindly accept their opinions because, they are in positions of authority and because he says so – thus we can say: “So much for the lazy, mindless assertion that torture works.”

Krauthammer also leaves out the obvious counterargument that just because something works doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. After all concentration camps worked and so did GULAGS and blankets infected with smallpox.

To point out that such a view is in theory intrinsically un-American seems both banal and besides the point. What does seem poignant and on-point is that this sort of second-rate pettifogging by Krauthammer, appearing in a well-respected media platform (The Washington – Democracy Dies in Darkness – Post) is taken seriously. That is no small matter. The logic, such as it is, is amateurish, the arrogance is appaling and the stature it is accorded frightening.

The truth is, it is a crap argument precisely because it is devoid of evidence and as a result it should be called out for exactly what it is: advocacy for tyranny and state sanctioned terrorism, and like all such arguments it rests on an appeal to ginning up atavistic unthinking fear and rage. It is counter-terrorism as the conch shell, with Krauthammer screaming, sucks to your assmar, and your civil liberties.

Which brings us to Sam Harris.

Harris makes four points on this topic in support of torture.

First that military attacks against a specific target (e.g. Bin Laden or other “significant” individuals) often entail large if not extensive casualties against civilians, and therefore is a kind of torture that then eliminates the flimsy ethical distinction between interrogation and torture of an individual.

Secondly, that given the first point, it justifies in the ticking time bomb case, the use of torture to extract information in time to save many lives.

And thirdly, that torture should be illegal but be recognized as a situational and ethical mulligan in which, if the stakes are sufficiently high, it should be allowed and given the assumption of grave and high stakes, the torturers would be unlikely to be prosecuted.

And Forth, it’s better to keep your mouth shut about this because the backlash is bad for business.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Harris explains his position this way:

“While most of my work has been devoted to controversial topics, I have taken very few positions that I later regret. There is one, however, and I regret it more with each passing hour: it is my “collateral damage argument” for the use of torture in extreme circumstances.  This argument first appeared in The End of Faith (pp. 192-199), in a section where I compare the ethics of “collateral damage” to the ethics of torture in times of war.  I argued then, and I believe today, that collateral damage is worse than torture across the board.”

Fair enough as reasonable people may disagree on the definition of “worse” but then he adds:

“However, rather than appreciate just how bad I think collateral damage is in ethical terms, many readers mistakenly conclude that I take a cavalier attitude toward the practice of torture. I do not. Nevertheless, I believe that there are extreme situations in which practices like “water-boarding” may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary—especially where getting information from a known terrorist seems likely to save the lives of thousands (or even millions) of innocent people.  To argue that torture may sometimes be ethically justified is not to argue that it should ever be legal (crimes like trespassing or theft may sometimes be ethical, while we all have an interest in keeping them illegal).”

Notice the attempted distinctions between “ethically justifiable” and “ethically necessary.” The crucial issue here is that the law does not recognize a distinction between what is ethically justifiable and ethically necessary. The law recognizes self defense – as in you killed someone who was trying to kill you, and the government ordered an attack against another country because the other country was about to launch an attack. (and even that raises legal quagmires).

In other words, the law does not grant anyone the right to justify crimes because of a sense of ethics (notwithstanding that in theory the law is derived from and assumed to be based on a sense of ethics). The reason being that either it must then grant an endless list of possible justifications based on an endless list of ethical arguments, or it must grant a monopoly of ethics to one group – the government, who then is never to be truly held accountable for its actions.

Harris then tries to have it both ways, or tries to ride two horses with one ass, by saying it’s illegal and should be but, it may sometimes be morally correct to break the law.

That sounds reasonable until you actually think about it in real world terms and it translates as: The law is provisional, and subject to the definitions of those in power who, based on what they claim is secret evidence, can whenever they choose, suspend the law and torture and potentially kill people. Or, using the claim of having secret evidence, just go ahead and kill people and justify it after the fact by saying, it was all perfectly legal.

In other words, Harris is advocating tyranny and is trying to make it sound like he’s just being reasonable and selling mouthwash.

And crucially, take note that Harris does not here or anywhere in the article in question, address the issue of the government operating in secret. He does not address the gathering of “evidence” in secret, or being subsequently defined as “secret” and resulting in the suspension of due process, nor does he address that these are all not only the textbook ingredients for the establishment of a police state, but that when used to justify torture, they obliterate all arguments about ethics because all of these factors taken as a whole are by definition, unethical and even if you grant his premise about an ethical necessity, the fact remains that government conducted in secret, is unethical because there is no way to tell if it is acting morally or not.

And then there is this:

“I sincerely regret making this argument. Rational discussion about the ethics of torture has proved impossible in almost every case, and my published views have been the gift to my critics and detractors that just keeps on giving: It seems that every few weeks, someone discovers the relevant pages in The End of Faith, or notices what others have said about them, and publicly attacks me for being “pro-torture.” Journalists regularly steer interviews on any subject in this direction—not so that they can understand my position, or coherently argue against it, but so that readers can be shocked by whatever misleading gloss appears in their final copy. The spectacle of someone not being reflexively and categorically “against torture” seems just too good to pass up.”

In other words Harris isn’t sorry for bringing up an argument based on subterfuge, pettifogging and a disregard for morality, which is then a de facto advocacy for state terrorism, but is peeved because advocating torture or a discussion in which torture qua torture is rendered as an abstraction which the makes it more acceptable, has provoked rage and fear in people who find such views abhorrent and may prevent them from buying his books.

He adds:

“And so, I am now a bit wiser and can offer a piece of advice to others: not everything worth saying is worth saying oneself. I am sure that the world needs someone to think out loud about the ethics of torture, and to point out the discrepancies in how we weight various harms for which we hold one another morally culpable, but that someone did not need to be me. The subject has done nothing but distract and sicken readers who might have otherwise found my work useful.”

Indeed – once you get passed the screams of people having electric cattle prods jammed into their genitals you can safely enjoy the rest of the thoughtful discourse Harris is offering, and you might find it useful. In fact, you might discover that the trains are running on time and the streets are all pristine because of course littering has been outlawed under penalty of death.

And of course notice the petulant tone behind which Harris pouts because he is incensed that some people do not want to give credence to tyrannical, sadistic ideas, by taking the time to address them rationally – as if rage and disgust in the face of tyranny are not rational responses (a thought Simone de Bouvoir addressed and whatever the esteemed ladies faults, she is to Harris as a mountain is to a pile of dirt).

But let’s take Harris at his word:

“The topic of torture surfaced recently in a profile of me published in The New Statesman. The author, Jonathan Derbyshire, concluded his piece with a misleading summary of my views (among other things, he neglected to say that I think torture should be illegal).”

Well Harris is correct but what he leaves out is that while he thinks torture should be illegal he also thinks it should be allowed and thus de facto legal when the government (using secretevidence“) decides exigent circumstances warrant its use. Thus, the objection is not misleading, as Harris claims, but justified (sic!) because Harris leaves out that advocating for torture to be illegal but sometimes acceptable, is at best a distinction without a difference, and at worst tyrannical and dangerous and thus immoral.

Harris then drills down:

“I am not alone in thinking that there are potential circumstances in which the use of torture would be ethically justifiable. Liberal Senator Charles Schumer has publicly stated that most U.S. senators would support torture to find out the location of a ticking time bomb. Such “ticking-bomb” scenarios have been widely criticized as unrealistic. But realism is not the point of such thought experiments. The point is that unless you have an argument that rules out torture in idealized cases, you don’t have a categorical argument against the use of torture.”

First the appeal to authority based on the “idea” that because other people have the same bad idea, the idea is reasonable. This is the essence of a second rate argument. The fact that Schumer agrees no more justifies torture than if Francisco Franco agreed that torture is acceptable. Unless of course Harris’ point is that precisely because a notorious psychopath and mass murderer agreed with him that it’s a good idea. Of course Harris is smart enough to avoid mentioning the rest of the company in which he places himself from the gentle Zen poets of the KGB to the delicate snowflakes in Pinochet’s Chile.

And that’s crucial. It not only reveals Harris to be on the side of the devils, but it reveals a second rate thinker at his finest. It is not just testimony to his duplicity and lack of gravitas, but it speaks to the general debasement of our public discourse that a man who either deliberately or accidentally sides with tyrants, is accorded public accolades and the stature (such as sit is) of being a regular presence on television shows.

But again, we return to the ticking time bomb scenario.

Notice the three card monte with which Harris tries to extricate himself.

First, he concedes that the TTB scenario has been deemed unrealistic but offers no examples as to why it is unrealistic. But then declares that “realism” is not the point. Except of course that’s a con because if the argument is to be taken seriously then by definition it has real world implications, and as such undermines the general (and frighteningly thin) consensus that torture is immoral.

But specifically consider the last line:

“The point is that unless you have an argument that rules out torture in idealized cases, you don’t have a categorical argument against the use of torture.”

Harris can assert his control of the terms of the debate as much as he likes but assertions are not facts.

First, Harris claims the argument he’s making is not realistic but only realistic and categorical objections of something defined as exceptional, and therefore either extremely unlikely or unrealistic are allowed.

Secondly he claims that unless you can refute an unrealistic or ideal scenario, you don’t have a valid counterargument.

And he’s absolutely correct. If you can’t disprove nonsense with a greater amount of nonsense your argument will fall apart, as it exceeds the g-force tolerance of acceptable logic and common sense.

And while we enjoy shooting pompous charlatans in a barrel as much as the next person what we want to emphasize here, is the extent to which such flim-flam by Harris is, as with the Post and Krauthammer (and pseudo-intellectual demagogic frauds like Jordan Peterson and the rest of the Youtube powered gang of snake oil salesman) taken seriously.

The fact that Harris is wrong, and that he’s making unethical arguments in favor of repugnant ideas, is bad enough, but worse still is that he’s being rewarded for it. That in turn speaks to the depravity of the corporate media and Harris’ enablers like Bill Maher who, in the textbook manner of second rate demagogues, provide platforms and legitimacy to charlatans peddling tyrannical ideologies.

However, if Harris is taken at his word then either his argument is unrealistic and therefore irrelevant, or it is realistic and therefore not only repugnant but dangerous because it is analogous to advocating state sponsored terrorism.

Having twisted himself into a logical cul de sac of contradictions, Harris jumps from the “ideal” and the “unrealistic” and demands that his questions and advocacy be taken seriously because:

“As nuclear and biological terrorism become increasingly possible, it is in everyone’s interest for men and women of goodwill to determine what should be done if a person appears to have operational knowledge of an imminent atrocity (and may even claim to possess such knowledge), but won’t otherwise talk about it.”

First, notice that he offers no evidence to support his claim that such potentially catastrophic acts are becoming more possible.

Nor does he mention that in order for such acts to occur the following conditions must also occur:

If as per the TTBS a “terrorist” with what appears to be “operational knowledge of an imminent atrocity” has been captured it begs the question that Harris has not asked: If the authorities know the prisoner has this information, they could only know it because they either had the individual under surveillance to begin with and/or because they had penetrated the cell with which he is associated. And if the “authorities” have just tripped over the information then why must we assume that the only piece of the puzzle that they tripped over was: There is a terrorist and they have knowledge of an imminent WMD attack?

Surely even in tripping over one individual and discovering they have knowledge of a looming catastrophe begs the question – how much more of the puzzle is contained in the initial discovery and to what extent does it mitigate the (gossamer) premise on which Harris’ argument rests?

If that is the case than the premise begins to fall apart as the authorities would have had ample time (and data) to take appropriate countermeasures.

But then there are a series of other factors Harris can’t account for including but not limited to:

The US military and all of its intelligence agencies must fail not once but multiple times along a specific continuum of events.

The militaries and intelligence agencies of every other nation that is allied with the US must also fail not once, but multiple times along a specific continuum of events.

The militaries and intelligence agencies of countries that while not allies, but who have a vested interest in containing and or preventing WMD attacks, as well as having a vested interest in not disrupting the world’s largest economy as well as their own, must also fail.

And then, the terrorist(s) must either steal or purchase or manufacture such weapons without being detected.

They must either do this inside the territory of the intended target or transport it to the intended target.

If the weapon is chemical or biological they must posses the equipment and expertise to successfully transport it, store it, and then use it. (and keep in mind the essential ingredient of the TTB scenario is time – thus chemical and biological weapons set to detonate either remotely or via a human agent are compromised because of the time factor precisely because such weapons are fragile and time-sensitive).

If it is radiological they must either follow the above protocols or use a weapon that can be fired from a great distance, which means stealing one of the most heavily guarded items on the planet, manage to evade capture, conceal the (very large) weapon, and then have the ability to use it.

Since Harris is asking for either realism or ideal conditions which by definition are not realistic, we are in a quandary.

While almost anything is possible the fact is that if one is using realistic variables the odds of a WMD attack of the nature Harris describes occurring are, completely unrealistic.

If we use his second criteria, of ideal and therefore unrealistic, then we can construct scenarios all day long and indulge in speculative question like – what if Napoleon had a flamethrower at Waterloo, or what if Lee had a machine gun at Gettysburg, or what if Chairman Mao had been able to levitate.

But then add in that Harris leaves out the fact that the military and the intelligence agencies are rarely lazy about expanding their reach, therefore if one grants the premise that the risks of such potentially catastrophic attacks are increasing then one must, logically assume that countermeasures are also increasing. If countermeasures are increasing then, by definition, the odds of a WMD attack are either decreasing or are static.

In other words, heavy cavalry was defeated by long range arrows and artillery, and mass infantry was defeated by machine guns and artillery, and tanks were countered by anti-tank missiles and so on, first one then another and then another, in an endless catechism of savagery.

But Harris’ goal is not to force a logical discussion of these issues. It is to force an irrational atavistic rage designed to provoke the mob while he goes on masquerading as a rationalist.

Harris is not wrong when he says that collateral damage – a euphemism for killing and maiming non-combatants – is a kind of torture and undermines the claim that precision strikes are in fact precise and surgical, with “surgical” suggesting something akin to a pristine operating room. That they are more precise then in the past is true but irrelevant. What is more relevant is that one could accurately describe capitalism this way and that is no small issue.

After all, given that over 90% of all lethal drone strikes have occurred in regions suffering from severe drought conditions, and environmental collapse is a direct result of (among other proximate causes) systemic exploitation for financial gain, one could make the case, per Harris, that capitalism is a form of torture. Add in that environmental collapse (of if you prefer, environmental genocide) are directly connected in no small measure to “the invisible hand of the market” and then the entire sham debate about “terrorism” is revealed to be a question of who is claiming the authority to define the narrative. And in that sense, Harris is correct to point out that euphemisms for torture are problematic at best and Orwellian nightmares at their worst. But he is then right for all the wrong reasons. And has scored on his own goal and set fire to the stadium.

He is wrong logically, and he is wrong ethically and he is wrong specifically when he makes use of a false symmetry between military action and justifications for torture.

The military is legally prohibited from operating as a law enforcement agency in the US under the Posse Comitatus Act. Counter terrorism and law enforcement falls to the FBI and other domestic federal and state law enforcement agencies. The fact that foreign policy is often if not consistently unethical, or at best a matter of choosing between bad and worse, does not even remotely justify torture.

But to use Harris’ logic we could then make the case that as the US supports Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia treats women as property, it is hypocritical for the US to not treat American women as property. But, per Harris, this is not realistic and any counter arguments must be realistic or the point stands.

In other words, Sam Harris has a finely calibrated mind employing the best ideas of the Middle Ages when, if she floats she’s a witch but if she drowns she’s innocent, was the height of logic and the law.

Allowing those agencies to torture anyone creates a dangerous if not potentially lethal window through which the Bill of Rights (already on life support) could be thrown, along with anyone the Hoovers decided was a “terrorist.”

Since we are already in an era where the president (courtesy of the great liberal, Obama) can claim to have the authority to use what they claim is secret evidence to justify the murder of a US citizen (See, Anwar Awlaki) the distinction between a military strike and the use of torture must be highlighted, and Harris must be called out for making a spurious and flimsy analogy as well using a morally repugnant set of ideas.

Then, consider the next flaw in Harris’ argument.

He posits a state of entropy in which the “terrorists” never adapt.

However the “terrorists” have by now become well acquainted with the public arguments made about this issue including the ticking time bomb scenario. Which means as with any other military or counter terrorism issue, one must assume that your opponent has adapted, and has strategies in place to take advantage of what he knows about your plans and strategies. These adaptations one assumes must include but are not limited to, plans with multiple branches including false leads, false leads mixed with real information, and the use of “martyrs” willing to sacrifice themselves by being tortured and providing genuine information about plans that are real, but only in the sense that they are designed to draw in resources and create both chaos, panic and overexertion or exhaustion of resources.

In other words, they get CNN and the internet pretty much everywhere and as has been well established Al Qaeda and ISIS et al, are adept at making use of the internet so that at this point the ticking time bomb scenario is at best played out, and at worst completely compromised as a tactical and strategic method.

So consider a plot to detonate a TTB. Imagine a cell that includes multiple “martyrs” whose mission is to be captured while simultaneously, the cell has leaked details that convince their opponents that a TTB is in play.

As a result, in this scenario, the use of torture becomes a weapon to be exploited not by the “counterterrorism” forces but by the “terrorists” precisely because torture is repurposed as a time waster, or force multiplier that diverts energy and time.

This then again reveals Harris, Krauthammer, et al, as amateurs masquerading as cool headed rationalists while they are in truth demagogues

But additionally there is another aspect of the sham that is never examined or even mentioned. If the counterterrorism experts have identified a member of a cell, or a lone wolf who has key information about an impending WMD attack, we are morally and logically obligated to ask specific questions about the scenario. In other words we must address what is meant by the military maxim that, amateurs talk tactics while professionals talk logistics.

In this scenario we ask the following:

If the “terrorist” is a lone wolf, then how did they organize the creation of and transportation of and placement of a WMD?

Secondly, if the terrorist is part of a cell, and has been captured, instead of authorizing the use of torture why not ask how the cops missed the rest of the cell, and if they did miss them instead of authorizing greater power and less legal restraint, how about authorizing greater oversight and more restraint as they seem to have bungled a crucial investigation? And notice that the argument is never framed as: should the government be restricted and have less power, but is always posed as: Given a threat the only response must be a greater tightening of civil liberties and a corresponding loosening of restraint on the government.

Third, if the terrorist is part of a cell then it is safe to assume that since the Orwellian panopticon is all-pervasive, surely the terrorist suspect has been recorded at some point interacting with other people. If he (or she) has been in this country and not living in a cave, and has transported a WMD, then it is illogical to assume they have been living in isolation. Therefore the scenario as arranged by Harris and others is faulty on multiple fronts.

Notice that Harris or Krauthammer never mentions these issues but still pride themselves on being rationalists.

Harris of course offers a series of counter arguments all of which suffer from two defects: First that he uses unfounded assumptions and because he is a kind of idiot savant with language it’s difficult to parse his arguments.

Consider the following:

“While I think that torture should remain illegal, it is not clear that having a torture provision in our laws would create as slippery a slope as many people imagine. We have a capital punishment provision, for instance, but this has not led to our killing prisoners at random because we can’t control ourselves.  While I am strongly opposed to capital punishment, I can readily concede that we are not suffering a total moral chaos in our society because we execute about five people every month.  It is not immediately obvious that a rule about torture could not be applied with equal restraint.”

Harris keeps making the claim that he is against torture and that it should be illegal except for the legal mulligan he inserts which means, torture is not illegal but provisional. The law is often vague but in this case it is not. Murder is illegal. There are no exceptions. There are degrees but they are all a crime. Torture is either illegal or it is not.

Secondly while reasonable people may disagree on whether or not capital punishment is causing a moral crisis in America the fact is, that Harris’ assertion that because he does not see capital punishment as being a symptom of such a crisis no such crisis exists, is not just spurious but a kind of grotesque demonstration of what one might charitably call the reasoning of a sociopath.

Further one could be excused for then missing the even more dubious and morally offensive and intellectually lax assertion about how there is no epidemic of random killings by the state – when in fact Strange Fruit is not just a great song but a reminder that random killings by the state have been and continue to be a fact and are symbolic of the systemic corruptions inherent in the American system. Then consider that Strange Fruit’s updated bastard child is Springsteen’s 41 Shots, and you have a pretty good sense that random state sanctioned murder is systemic and part of a vast moral crisis. Or if you have the stomach for it just Google “Ferguson.”

Harris doubles down on this by speaking in casual if not glib terms, about how the deaths of five people a month does not mean we are suffering a “total moral crisis.”

Which means, he’s paraphrasing that noted humanitarian, Joe Stalin who said, one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.

But, Harris isn’t wrong since there are about a thousand other reasons to make the case that we are experiencing a total moral crisis and the death penalty (and the fact that it is applied unevenly to minorities and that the entire judicial system including the privatized prison industrial complex is a sign of terminal moral decay) is one of them.

But additionally consider that Harris blithely makes the case that the death penalty is essentially no big deal, while ignoring the mountain of evidence that establishes the fact that the death penalty is a moral catastrophe, that it is essentially both an instrument of race and class oppression, and that it places America alongside such paragons of jurisprudence as Iran and Saudi Arabia. But do not forget (or be distracted by) that because Harris’ point is that precisely because it is a kind of trifle the death penalty makes the case that torture is acceptable.

It is, in other words, a kind of Orwellian buy one get one free tyranny.

But keep in mind that this line of reasoning is not atypical for Harris. Speaking on one of his podcasts he made the case that while police brutality exists and is a problem, one should act as if cops were all potentially malfunctioning psychopaths. And note, crucially, he does not say that in the sense of, it’s outrageous and we must be wary of living in a de facto state of emergency where basic civil liberties are either under siege or have been neutered, he means it, as evidenced by his tone, that that’s the way it is and get used to it.

This sounds like the stuff of an hour on a therapist’s couch with questions about Harris’ relationship with his father and other formative relationships in his early childhood. But short of that, we must also make the point that it also sounds like an argument for surrendering civil liberties, and the acceptance of being powerless in the face of systemic corruption, which in turn becomes an argument advocating the establishment of a kind of dystopian neo-fascist new order.

In other words, it is a kind of state sponsored terrorism.

If you must live in fear of cops malfunctioning and killing you then the Bill of Rights becomes meaningless (except for the wealthy) and such a system would be a de facto acceptance of torture as a legal method of enforcing “justice.” The fact that such a state within the official state is the reality for most minorities and the poor is of course something Harris does not discuss.

This type of torture has two iterations. First it is the actual facts of physical pain and secondly it is the permanent state of fear which is of course the goal of fascists of every stripe – left or right – or those who claim to be champions of objective and empirical scientism but really are fans of discipline.

But then Harris sticks the landing:

“It is not immediately obvious that a rule about torture could not be applied with equal restraint.”

Well, he’s right, it’s not immediately obvious but that’s only because it’s also not immediately obvious that it wouldn’t lead to the elimination of restraint and considering that the risk of failure is a catastrophe there’s a reason we shouldn’t do it.

But of course we do have a vast record of what happens when nations engage in torture and none of them are good. Even on those occasions when the torture produced useful information, and therefore one could attempt to justify torture in that singular and limited example, the issue is that the single act of torture has never been separate from a gestalt of moral compromise.

And this is a crucial issue: Torture does not exist separately from the “war against “terrorism.””

This is a point Harris both avoids and then disagrees with by claiming that because he does not believe there is a moral crisis inherent in capital punishment, one does not exist. He offers no evidence to support this but then also claims his reasoning is superior to the emotive and factless counterarguments of his opponents.

The fact is that torture is immoral because it erodes a society’s ethics and compromises it’s legal system, and opens the door to abuse in which the rights of the individual are meaningless.

Add to that the obvious and likely use of duplicity by “terrorists” specifically in regards to taking advantage of the ticking time bomb scenario, and the entire idea becomes both immoral and illogical and dangerous.

But then Harris continues with a variation of the same spurious argument:

“The best case against “ticking-bomb” arguments appears in David Luban’s article, “Liberalism, Torture, and the Ticking Bomb,” published in the Virginia Law Review. (I have posted a PDF here.) Luban relies on a few questionable assumptions, however. And he does not actually provide an ethical argument against torture in the ticking bomb case; he offers a pragmatic argument against our instituting a policy allowing torture in such cases.  There is absolutely nothing in Luban’s argument that rules out the following law:

We will not torture anyone under any circumstances unless we are certain, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the person in our custody has operational knowledge of an imminent act of nuclear terrorism.

It seems to me that unless one can produce an ethical argument against torturing such a person, one does not have an argument against the use of torture in principle.”

Notice the distinction Harris makes between pragmatism and ethics, as if pragmatic reasons for not enshrining torture as part of the law are not an ethical position.

Then notice that what is left out of this equation is the issue of secrecy. As in, if you give the police both the ability to operate outside of an open and transparent legal system, and the right to opt out of legal restraints based on their claim that they “know” the prisoner has crucial information than you are simply polishing the same turd twice.

What we do know is that the cops have been consistently guilty of breaking the law, planting evidence, torture, extortion, blackmail, drug dealing, murder, using illegal wiretaps and electronic methods of mass surveillance, and that in each case when they have been given both the ability to operate in secret and to torture, they have become more of a gang than a branch of the law operating in a free society.

Needless to say it is mighty White of Harris to volunteer to cough up everyone else’s civil liberties.

And then there is this:

“I consider it to be one of the more dangerous ironies of liberal discourse that merely discussing the possibility of torturing a man like Osama bin Laden provokes more outrage than the maiming and murder of children ever does.”

The first point to made against this mile wide inch deep notion is that not everyone is a liberal and that a cursory examination of the non-mainstream corporate media will reveal a vast array of arguments against collateral damage. But notice that Harris offers nothing accept the empty caloric rush of rhetorical sugar, thus suggesting that no such arguments exist.

And finally we make note of what else Harris does not say. Harris makes no mention of Albert Camus. While it is not a requirement in any legal (sic) sense that one must mention x or y the fact is that there is something both defective and insulting in the absence.

It is both immoral and insulting first because Harris prides himself on being a replete sifter of the details, and secondly it is immoral and insulting because his pseudo-intellectualism is taken to be an example of first rate intellectualism in defense of the greater good.

This as we mentioned, is down to the triumph of television and internet culture in which the soundbite has replaced the thoughtful meditation. Complexity is reduced to a barrage of unverifiable statistics (the Jordan Peterson school of demagoguery) and the snarky reductionism of Bill Maher (who not coincidentally is a fan and an enabler of Sam Harris). In this arena issues that routinely require volumes of scholarly work to explain are transformed into jokes and demagogic bromides whose meta reality is to provide space in-between the commercials.

There is a reason that advanced training is required to effectively discuss the law and the history of the law, and terrorism and asymmetrical warfare and television shows and punchy books by self proclaimed “experts” are fabrications of a consumer culture addicted to advertising and spectacle in place of contemplation and dedicated scholarship.

This reductionism, this use of demagoguery and spectacle, are of course the standard tactics of reactionaries and fascists of both the left and the right who are at war with both experts (designated and vilified as the “elite”) and the often maddeningly ponderous methods of a neutral, reason and evidence based bureaucracy.

Thus, discussing the death penalty and torture without recourse to Camus is like discussing War and Peace without mentioning the French or the Russians. You can do it, but at the cost of any sense of integrity and only by claiming that the damn thing is just a long book about the weather.

And so we return to Harris claiming that not only is there no moral crisis but that no one has made the case against the death penalty and torture.

And we note that Harris does not say no one has not spoken out against the death penalty but we also note that he claims there is no moral crisis because of its use and that therefore it is acceptable to use of torture and the absence of the crisis goes some distance to justifying torture.

Except of course there is disagreement about the existence of the crisis and there are people of towering intellectual reputation who have voiced eloquent and damning arguments against both the death penalty, and torture and against the death penalty as a form of torture.

And one of them is of course Camus – and we invoke him with full understanding and acknowledgement that reasonable people can and do disagree about his moral integrity vis Algeria or other issues – and as an example we take note that one could point out that Thomas Jefferson owned Sally Hemmings but, crucially, that doesn’t mean the Bill of Rights was a bad idea.

The symbiosis between the death penalty and torture lies in the fact that both are intended to act as deterrents and both obviously fail. Further the symbiosis lies in the fact that the death penalty is in fact, a form of torture.

In the case of the efficacy of the death penalty as George Carlin put it, drug dealers (and he means kingpins not your friend with the dime bags) live with the possibility of death every day and don’t fear it. What he doesn’t say directly is that psychopaths are immune to anything but the (twisted) logic of psychopaths.

The perfect illustration of this in the apocryphal story of how when asked why he kept robbing banks, Willie Sutton said: Because that’s where the money is.

In other words, the sociopath and the psychopath are immune to the logic of ethics and elide the moral dimension from the equation. Thus, I need money. The bank has money. I will take the money from the bank.

This is the reasoning of a damaged mind and no amount of deterrence will change their calculations.

This is also true for the “terrorist.”

The counter argument that the point of torture is not deterrence but prevention, is still spurious for the reasons we outlined above but the argument reveals another version of Harris’ affection for authoritarian regimes.

As with the malfunctioning cop, the wink-wink legal mulligan exception for torture is an advocacy for a permanent state of terror. Since torture is only an issue within the context of the “war on terror” or the forever war, advocacy for torture is revealed again to be immoral because it becomes in the Sam Harris scenario, a permanent condition of society and a permanent tool of the state. Since the state has given itself the power to conduct previously public activities in secret, normalizing torture is both illogical and immoral and in fact is immoral precisely because it is illogical. It does not protect anyone, it is potentially susceptible to manipulation by both law enforcement and “terrorists” and it has the clear potential to become a permanent feature of society which then warps and distorts the republic out of all recognizable features.

Consider Camus’ version of these issues (in regards specifically to the use of the guillotine and to capital punishment generally):

“That there is no proof that the death penalty ever made a single murderer recoil when he had made up his mind, whereas clearly it had no effect but one of fascination on thousands of criminals; that, in other regards, it constitutes a repulsive example, the consequences of which cannot be foreseen….”


“To begin with, society does not believe in what it says. If it really believed what it says, it would exhibit the heads. Society would give executions the benefit of the publicity it generally uses for national bond issues or new brands of drinks.”

And specifically we draw your attention to Camus’ point that there could be unforeseen consequences.

This is of course down to the fact that Camus was a genius and a genuine philosopher and not a television personality, and that as a novelist of great intelligence and wisdom he is in the words of his colleague, Joseph Conrad, reminding us that one aspect of the novelist’s job is in part to force us to ask those questions we have forgotten to ask ourselves.

Thus, we must wrestle with what we do not know. We can claim to know any number of facts about “terrorists” and expediency but the vast array of unknowns are, or at least should be, terrifying. We do not and cannot know what will come from institutionalizing torture. We cannot know how such a set of laws could be twisted in the future. But because we are blessed to have Camus to consult we can note that he points out that after the Wiedemann execution in France, in the late 1930s, and the resulting bad (i.e., prurient) publicity, the French government decreed that all subsequent executions were to be conducted out of the public view.

A fact Camus notes ruefully, that aided the Vichy regime when their chance came.

This is also true of torture. If its purpose is saving lives then surely a component of saving lives would be deterrence. Publicly demonstrating the seriousness of the situation and the dedication of law enforcement as well as demonstrating the state’s faith in its methods, surely torture should be shown on television.

The disgust such a suggestions produces is not absurd. It is wholly appropriate. Or to paraphrase Sam Harris, if you have no objective rebuttal to the suggestion then you can have no idealized rebuttal to as an abstraction, therefore, we should show torture on television.

But as Camus makes clear, the spectacle of a public death (what Christopher Hitchens rightly described as a ritual sacrifice and thus a continuation in our time with practices we associate with antiquity) works only so long as it is public – but that even then it only works with those are susceptible to empathy and sympathy. A fact which precludes murderers and terrorists.

In a joint work with Arthur Koestler, Camus notes that while pickpocketing was previously a crime in England, punishable by death, an examination of the records reveals that hundreds of pickpockets who were hanged, had previously been present at the hanging of other pickpockets. To which Koestler adds that during the public spectacles of the executions, pickpockets would work the crowds who had gathered to watch the state sanctioned lynching.

But, one does not expect an amateur like Harris to discuss logistics when it’s far more lucrative and facile to just stick to the shallow end of the pool, and boast about your sense of tactics.

Torture is utterly, irredeemably repugnant to any sound moral sensibility, and can only be justified by ghouls, fools and tyrants.

Torture, conducted in secret, based on “evidence” gathered in secret and not subject to transparent review, is state sanctioned and state sponsored terrorism.

The calls to justify it, and the calls to discuss it as if it were an abstraction, are devious, pernicious and potentially lethal.

Do not send to ask for whom Sam Harris tolls, as he tolls the bell for tyranny and pretends otherwise.

Call tyranny by any name you like but it is tyranny, and it is immoral and must be resisted.






Krauthammer can be read here:

Sam Harris can be read here:

Various arguments against the ticking Time bomb Scenario can be found by placing “arguments against the ticking time bomb” in the search engine of your choosing.


For a deeper look at Harris’ nonsense and the tactics of prevarication and obfuscation and general rhetorical bull shit, see the following:

Update: 7/14/18

Alan Dershowitz, operating in the same too clever by half and sado-masochistic vein offers up a similar if slightly more legalistic defense for acting like a fascist who enjoys discipline:


The Japanese death cult, Aum Shinrikyo, was responsible for the notorious lethal sarin attack that killed several people and injured over a thousand.

It represents (so far as the public knows) the most lethal non-state act of weapon of mass destruction/terror to date. It also, on the surface, would suggest an example that supports the use of torture in the TTB scenario.

Except, that it is the only one of its kind in recent times. Which indicates that such acts, however awful, are in fact, extremely rare.

See details here:

Re: Camus: “A country wears the face of its judicial system, and ours should have something else to show the world than this messy face.”



2 comments on “Abbott and Costello Versus The Terrorist. Sam Harris and the Fallacy of The Ticking Time Bomb Scenario.

  1. Life would be simpler if the defenders of authoritarianism would admit that they are authoritarians, as long as they get to be on top and the violent oppression is applied to other people that they don’t have to know or think about as real people.

    There is an obvious problem in this line of thinking, of course. When authoritarianism takes over, those who thought they were immune from victimization sometimes find themselves on the wrong end of the stick.

    But such moral insight is beyond Harris’ pay grade as a propagandist for the police state. There is no deep thought going on. As a reactionary, Harris just likes the idea of violence. It has nothing to do with cynical real politik in arguing for pragmatic results. Violence excites the reactionary mind, that is all.


    1. rauldukeblog says:

      That sums it up. Harris genuinely seems to be sadistic and seems to be discussing sadistic fantasies but is playing them out in coded iterations that have a veneer of sophistication – for unsophisticated minds.

      And one assumes he is pushing these fantasies with an “unconscious” impulse to be caught up in them or to be allowed to watch while others are tortured.

      “It has nothing to do with cynical realpolitik…Violence excites the reactionary mind.”

      That’s the key factor with Haris. A fondness for discipline and one assumes hard core sadism disguiesed by layers of “rational cool.”

      Liked by 2 people

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