Monday, October 10, 2005

The Krauthammer Scenario

I'm Gonna Blow!
Over the weekend, I listened to Charles Krauthammer on "Inside Washington" discuss what I have come to call "The Krauthammer Scenario." Basically, it goes like this: If you knew that a nuclear device was going to explode somewhere in Washington, D.C. in thirty minutes, and you had a person in custody who knew the location of this device, why wouldn't you torture this person to obtain the information?

Why wouldn't I torture this person to obtain the information? Well, laying aside for the moment the numerous psychological studies that suggest torture is not the most effective method to obtain information, there are several reasons why I wouldn't.

  1. Assuming for a moment that you get this person to talk, they cough up an address: the intersection of 7th and D streets. But which one? There are four such intersections in the city. Can you summon enough manpower to search those four locations thoroughly? In thirty minutes? And then defuse the bomb? Doubtful.
  2. Charles has seen "The Peacemaker" too many times. Life is not a movie, Charles. The odds of finding a nuclear device and deactivating it in the time you give are somewhere between slim and none.
  3. Piling on to my #2 reason, this article from The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is not very encouraging. From the conclusion:
    Of course, even advance warning is no guarantee of success, given the difficulty of locating a hidden nuclear device and the limited time that may be available. A comment in the Nevada Operations Office's after-action report on [a recent inter-agency exercise in locating nuclear material] is chilling, not as a criticism of NEST members, with their diverse talents and dedication, but as an acknowledgment of a harsh reality. The report notes that it would be "a drastic mistake to assume that NEST technology and procedures will always succeed, resulting in zero nuclear yield."

Charles, I'd like to ask you a favor. You can continue being a schill for the current administration, but would you please refrain from nuclear speculation. You obviously have no idea what the heck you are talking about.


TeacherRefPoet said...

You're not addressing the root question--instead you're hung up on technicalities.

What if you know that they've got conventional explosives stored on five airliners set to go off in 12 hours. Do you torture then?

Don't know what my answer is, but the question is about the morality of it, not the technicalities of it. The part you were "setting aside" is more important than your main points.

tommyspoon said...

No, I'm not. I'm pointing out the idiocy of "The Krauthammer Scenario," which is being used to justify torture in the first place. If the justification doesn't pass muster, then that makes torture moot, doesn't it?

TeacherRefPoet said...

OK--then don't answer Krauthammer's question. Answer mine.

tommyspoon said...

TRP, am I not making myself clear? Allow me to condense:

1. I am ANTI-TORTURE. Period. In all cases.

2. I did answer Krauthammer's question by poking holes in his silly scenario. Point #1 of my original post should be enough, but the report on the NEST exercise is sufficient as well.

3. I'm going to repeat myself: "If the justification doesn't pass muster, then that makes torture moot, doesn't it?"

4. And now to your question -- although I should embargo my answer until you answer my Sweetie's question on baseball decisions, but you seem impatient. My answer is no. Because 12 hours is not enough time to extract information. The slower methods of information extraction take days to work effectively, if they work at all. Torture is not an effective method of extacting information, period. Besides, assuming you capture someone involved in the plot, what makes you think they'll talk in the first place? Or that they know anything? Or that the information they do cough up is useful?

5. This post was not meant to address the moral implications of torture, which are more important than "technicalities." But the other side of this debate has turned a deaf ear to morality. So I'm attacking their silly scenarios. I'm not hopeful that they'll listen, but perhaps they'll reconsider their position like one of my colleagues at work did the other day when we had a similar conversation. (And what if his son, serving in Afghanistan, was tortured.)

There. Is that clearer?

TeacherRefPoet said...


I agree with your answer. But the other side is not morally bankrupt.

They just believe that the thousands of lives saved outweigh the one guy tortured. Your response--that it might not work anyway, and that there are other moral concerns they're ignoring.

There are two sides to this--not one, as you suggest.

tommyspoon said...

Ok, now I'm confused...

What is your definition of morally bankrupt, TRP?

My definition is when our current Attorney General of the United States considers the anti-torture provisions of the Geneva Conventions "quaint".

TeacherRefPoet said...

If I know that kicking a guy in the balls a few times would prevent another 9/11, I'd put on a pair of steel-toed boots and do it myself. I believe the lives of 3,000 are worth more than the balls of 1. That is a moral decision, and a legitimate one to make.

This doesn't mean I reject the Geneva conventions or support the president's policies. It just means that ethical exercises like Krauthammer shouldn't be dismissed out of hand on the technicalities of nuclear science. Your post ignores the big, important issues (is torture ever justified or effective) to slam him on little, unimportant ones (is it possible to disarm a nuclear device in a half hour).

Things in the real world aren't as simple as Krauthammer makes them, of course. But we can't reject the questions for silly small reasons. Your second answer, that torture doesn't work, is far more convincing than niggling on the nuclear details. It also does a vastly superior job of exposing the Krauthammer scenario's shortcomings.

As usual, we 98% agree with each other, and we're hollering about the 2%.


Alison said...

tommyspoon wrote:
Point #1 of my original post should be enough...

Actually, Tom, I thought #1 was by far the weakest and most straw-man-ish argument. With that point, you've just effectively said that the vagaries of DC geography are the problem, which doesn't make ANY points for your side of the debate (which, considering I already agree with you on a lot of it, is saying something).

tommyspoon said...


There was a WaPo article back in the 1980s that basically said the unique geography of D.C. was a double-edged sword in terms of terrorism: potential enemies would have a very difficult time navigating the city and law enforcement response teams would also have a very difficult time navigating the city.

Your point is well taken, though. When Krauthammer finished outlining his scenario, a D.C. street map was the first thing to pop into my mind...