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Torture and the Ticking Time Bomb in the Era of Global Terror (February 2018): Home

By Julie Beicken


This essay first appeared in the February 2018 issue of Choice (volume 55 | issue 6)


The terrorist attacks of 9/11 shocked the world and ushered in a new set of threats, fears, and national responses known collectively as the War on Terror.1 During this era, the practice of torture, legally abolished long ago and largely considered uncivilized and morally wrong, emerged as a potential aid in this global “war.” Specifically, the issue of whether or not to use torture to thwart future terrorist attacks arose among legal scholars, philosophers, political theorists, and government personnel. What has been called the “ticking time bomb scenario” (henceforth TTB) emerged as an example of when torture might conceivably be justifiable, and indeed even necessary. In this hypothetical, a terrorist plot that will cost a large number of innocent lives is about to be carried out. Government officials have access to a terrorist with key information regarding the attack. The question debated is whether or not it is permissible to torture the terrorist to gain life-saving information in this instance. Many say yes; others say never.

This essay presents the vast array of interdisciplinary literature on the topic of torture in the War on Terror, drawing on history, sociology, political science, philosophy, legal studies, journalism, and media studies. It exclusively references books published on the topic, although many journal articles and websites regularly address the subject. The essay is divided into eight sections. “The History of Torture” provides information about important histories of torture that contextualize the practice in both ancient and modern times. “Different Positions on the Moral Status of Torture” presents the key arguments of the torture debate surrounding the TTB in the War on Terror. “Understanding the War on Terror” details key perspectives on the War on Terror and how it has been framed as exceptional. “The Road to Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo” includes literature that explains how and why the Bush administration justified the use of enhanced interrogation techniques that often amounted to torture in the War on Terror. “Government Documents” describes the volumes of declassified torture documents available to the public. “Torture and the Racialization of Muslims Since 9/11” presents arguments for the continued “othering” of Muslims since the terrorist attacks. “Who Tortures and Why?” offers explanations for how a person can become a torturer. Finally, “Torture in the Media: Jack Bauer’s World” offers a summary of literature that analyzes the changing image of torture in popular culture from one of sadism to one of heroism.

Julie Beicken is assistant professor of sociology at Rocky Mountain College. 


1. The response to terrorism is known variously as the “war on terror,” the “Global War on Terror,” and the “War on Terror.” This essay will use “War on Terror” as this was the name used by the Bush administration. Quotation marks are used occasionally because the use of war rhetoric is symbolic, as the literature in the third section discusses.