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Cafes and ticking time bombs

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Philip Klein

When the torture debate consumed Washington during the Bush administration, Charles Krauthammer popularized the argument built around the “ticking time bomb” scenario. The argument, in essence:

Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He’s not talking.

Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?

Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.

At the time, this argument was ripped apart by opponents of the Bush administration’s interrogation policies. They argued that such a scenario was a fanciful one that had more in common with an episode of ’24′ than with actual reality.

I thought back to this on Wednesday as I watched Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster of President Obama’s drone policy, which I described earlier as a rare messaging victory for Republicans over Obama. But time and again on Wednesday, Paul and fellow GOP Senators posed the hypothetical of whether Obama thought he could use an armed drone to kill a non-combatant American citizen at a cafe on U.S. soil when there wasn’t an imminent threat. My question: is this example any less far-fetched than the “ticking time bomb” example that was routinely mocked by civil libertarians? In both cases, people arguing about constitutional limits are concocting extreme scenarios to make their opponents positions as hard to defend as possible.

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Author:

Philip Klein

Commentary Editor
The Washington Examiner