Torturous questions

Republican candidates at last Tuesday’s debate were asked about a now tired hypothetical:

The questions in this round will be premised on a fictional, but we think plausible scenario involving terrorism and the response to it. Here is the premise: Three shopping centers near major U.S. cities have been hit by suicide bombers. Hundreds are dead, thousands injured. A fourth attack has been averted when the attackers were captured off the Florida coast and taken to Guantanamo Bay, where they are being questioned. U.S. intelligence believes that another larger attack is planned and could come at any time.

First question to you, Senator McCain. How aggressively would you interrogate those being held at Guantanamo Bay for information about where the next attack might be?

As an editorial in the Washington Post points out, only John McCain got the answer right: when you torture your prisoners you actually make things worse, both in terms of world opinion and in wasting time on the unreliable information it produces. The trouble is, Hume’s hypothetical is actually two questions: a surface question about torture and an emotional question about what the candidate would be willing to sacrifice in the name of security. Personally I’d like to see the second question made more explicit. For example, how about asking one of these:

  • “Would you be willing to saw off your left leg with no anesthetic to stop a terrorist attack?”
  • “If you could go back in time and murder the 5-year-old Osama bin Laden with your bare hands, would you do it?”
  • “Would you be willing to repeal the First Amendment if it would stop another 9/11-sized attack? What about the Second Amendment? Would you raise taxes? Would you give up your immortal soul? How about your chances for re-election?”

Or maybe we should make the whole question less hypothetical. How about this?

“Gentlemen, on your left is Jerry (dressed in an Osama bin Laden mask), who is holding device that in one minute will send a million volts through the chairs of 10 random people sitting in our audience. To your right you see a switch that will disable the device, but will also drop poor Mrs. Grinwald here into this vat of hungry sharks. The decision is yours, but please be prepared to explain your actions.

Our TV audience will then vote for their favorite response via SMS, and the top 5 candidates will go on to the next round of questions.”