In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Taking Terrorism, Ticking Time-Bombs, and Torture Seriously
  • Adam Henschke (bio)
Fritz Allhoff, Terrorism, Ticking Time-Bombs, and Torture: A Philosophical Analysis (University of Chicago Press, 2012), ISBN 978-02260-1483-8, 266 pages.

Torture is widely accepted as a grave moral wrong; for many it represents something so deeply egregious that it can never be justified. The Third Geneva Convention states that “[n]o physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever.”1 But recently, some liberal democratic states have engaged in acts such as waterboarding, and perhaps adding insult to injury, have sought to justify their actions.

Stepping into a complex set of discussions, Fritz Allhoff offers a philosophical analysis of issues in and around torture. In Terrorism, Ticking Time-Bombs, and Torture,2 Allhoff has written an impressive book-length treatment of some of the conceptual and ethical issues of torture. For many, Ticking Time-Bombs’ conclusion—that torture can be justified in a limited set of exceptional circumstances—is challenging. It is premised on the idea that if large numbers of lives are at stake then perhaps extreme measures like torture are justified or even necessary.

Allhoff enters the debate by setting up the discussion essentially as some form of rights conflict. Allhoff describes his approach in the preface as follows:

We are surrounded by platitudes about how torture violates the rights of the tortured, how it compromises their dignity, and so on. Interrogational torture, however, is not primarily about the tortured: it is about the lives threatened by terrorist attacks. … Approaching the torture debate by placing a premium on the lives of innocents—rather than the putative rights of suspected terrorists—recasts it in a morally significant way.3

Those familiar with discussions of human rights know all too well the tensions between rights; for instance the tension between a right not to be killed and a right not to be tortured. It is this set of tensions—the defense of human rights and the prohibitions against torture—that frame Allhoff’s discussion. His position is best captured when he states: “The key is to recognize ticking time-bomb cases as ones of rights conflicts rather than as [End Page 478] merely involving the rights of the terrorist and, furthermore, to recognize that the cases are constructed such that torture minimizes overall rights violations.”4

I consider this book a great example of applied ethics: it raises a serious moral dilemma, and seeks to integrate high-level conceptual discussion with facts from the real world. It starts with a legitimate dilemma: if we take human rights seriously, such that the protection of the right to life can sometimes count more than other moral considerations, how then do we deal with issues where the defense of that right to life can only be protected by violating another’s right to be free from torture? Through a detailed discussion of terrorism, moral exceptionalism, and ticking time-bombs in theory and in practice, Allhoff’s analysis and arguments are mostly convincing. This review summarizes the book’s main points, criticizes two of these points, and finishes with a more general discussion of the importance of the approach taken by Allhoff.

Terrorism, Torture and Ticking Time-Bombs, and The Real World

Ticking Time-Bombs is separated into three sections, each three chapters in length. The structure is easy to follow and meaningful; it seeks to define and understand terrorism, to present a set of reasons as to the usefulness of the hypothetical case of the ticking time-bomb, and to see how such a set of theoretic positions fit with the real world. For those seeking a clear, informative, and well-structured discussion and analysis of the conceptual, moral, and pragmatic aspects of these issues, the book is highly useful.

Part I looks at the conceptual and moral considerations of terrorism, and “the war on terror and the ethics of exceptionalism.” Allhoff begins with a brief history of terrorism and defines it as “the intentional use of force against noncombatants or their property to intentionally instill fear in the hopes of...