Torture and the Ticking Time Bomb (Read: Nuclear) Scenario

Written by Russ Wellen

When the subject of torture in the abstract is broached, the conversation tends to wend its way toward the terrorist and the ticking time-bomb scenario. You know how it goes: a terrorist group announces that a nuclear bomb it’s planted in a major American city will be detonated unless its demands are met. One of its members is captured. Time to take off the shackles on torture and let ‘er rip, right?

However, when a scenario hinges on not only the ultimate weapon, but one set to go off at a time that’s both predetermined and rapidly approaching, it’s no longer a test case for torture. Instead the debate slips down a peg in hierarchy to one about torture under highly specific circumstances. The option often poised in counterpoint to torture — becoming intimate with the subject and winning his or her trust over repeated interrogation sessions — is removed because of the time constraints. The scenario, in other words, becomes tantamount to the plot device of a movie.

In fact, such a movie, was made by Australian director Gregor Jordan, but, apparently deemed unfit for theatrical release, it went straight to video. One viewer wrote of The Unthinkable: “Glib, pretentious and cynical, this is both unpleasant and insufferable.” But this viewer found it thought-provoking.

The film’s plot differs from the shopworn scenario in that the perpetrators are fewer: one man — an Anglo former member of special operations forces with nuclear knowledge turned radical Islamist. But the number of bombs is greater: three, says Yusuf, aka Stephen Arthur Younger. To back up his threat if his as yet unspecified demands aren’t met, he films himself with what he claims to be a nuclear bomb, complete with a timer that has been set.

Younger, played by Welsh actor Michael Sheen, soon allows himself to be captured in Los Angeles, presumably to enhance the platform from which he will attempt to get his demands met. Brought to what appears to be an evacuated school, he’s handed over to black ops torturer Henry Humphries. Known as “H,” he’s played by Samuel Jackson, compelling as always and, in fact, underplaying what could be easily be an over-the-top role. H’s foil is Helen Brody, played by Carrie-Ann Moss, of the FBI, which prides itself on getting results without torture.

The phrase “torture porn” has been invoked to describe The Unthinkable. True, it features plenty of tasering and, as well, severed fingertips are shown. But when it comes to atrocity exhibitions, it’s not in the same league as, say (the author imagines without actually seeing), the Hostel series.

One scene, though, shocks, but — handled without gore — only because it’s unexpected. Without revealing its nature (because — spoiler alert, as they say — I’m about to give away the rest of the movie), I’ll note that, to the discerning viewer, it supplants the question of torture momentarily. But torture returns to the foreground when the meaning of the movie’s title, The Unthinkable, reveals itself.

Try to imagine torture at its most degraded and demented. Dental drilling a la The Marathon Man? Bringing harm to the sexual organs? No, think who, not what. When Younger, with his special forces training, proves impervious to torture on his person, H calls for his children to be brought to the site.

H believes that Younger has foreseen every contingency. In fact, Younger had expected his family to be out of harm’s way on a plane to Saudi Arabia, but his Muslim wife and children were denied visas. (Small flaw in the plot: The last thing Saudi Arabia, particularly in light of recent efforts to root out al Qaeda in its midst, would want is to welcome the family of a nuclear terrorist in its midst. It would likely have extradited Younger’s family to the United States — or what remained of it after the nuclear explosions. Younger should have known this.)

When his children are escorted into the interrogation room, Younger becomes distraught and gives up the locations of a bomb in Los Angeles, as well as in New York City. (Authorities had already located one in Dallas.) The officials at the interrogation site allow themselves to hope that the threat is winding down. However, H remains suspicious that, even in his reduced state, Younger has something up his sleeve. Then H realizes that not all the missing enriched uranium from Russia that Younger used to make his bombs hasn’t been accounted for in the three known bombs. Enough remains for Younger to have manufactured a fourth bomb. (Another flaw in the plot: authorities just might have noticed that little detail.)

When Brody refuses to return the children to the interrogation room, H, apparently grandstanding, unstraps Younger and informs him that he’s free. But Younger manages to get hold of a sidearm and kills himself. FBI agent Brody leads Younger’s children out of the site and the film ends. It seems anti-climactic and an alternate ending for the movie was created, providing, from the account I read, no more satisfaction on the surface. But was it necessary to depict the last bomb detonating most likely in middle America?

Aside from ending the torture and eliminating the risk that he might crack and give up the last bomb, what did Younger achieve by shooting himself? In fact, by giving up the location of the Los Angeles bomb, he removed his children from harm’s way. Also, because he’s dead, information can’t be extracted from him by torturing his children.

After the movie ends, you make an accounting: who was right — those pro or those against torture? Let’s do the math. The FBI discovered one bomb (25% of the threat), torture produced two bombs (50%), and one fell through the cracks. The argument, however, can be made that if Younger were still alive he’d be even more likely to give up that last bomb to ensure the safety of his children. Let’s then rate torture 75% successful.

True, it’s insidious that watching The Unthinkable left this viewer more interested in calculating a score for torture than debating whether it was justified. To reiterate, the sui generis-ness of the scenario seems to make approving torture in this situation as free of ethical concerns as killing zombies. Or am I just making an excuse for myself?

This question was explored in 2006 and again in 2008 by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explored this question. First, though, its disclaimer:

It is important to stress here that the kind of scenario under discussion remains that of the one-off case of torture in an emergency situation; what is not under consideration in this section is legalised, or otherwise institutionalised, torture.

The treatise proper begins:

. . . The central claim of the proponents of “practical moral absolutes” seems to be [that] ticking bomb scenarios, such as our above-described terrorist case — and other relevant one-off emergencies in which torture seems to be justified — have not, and will not, happen. . . . [But] it is not simply a philosopher’s fanciful example.

To outline the justification:

(1) The police reasonably believe that torturing the terrorist will probably save thousands of innocent lives; (2) the police know that there is no other way to save those lives; (3) the threat to life is imminent; (4) the thousands about to be murdered are innocent — the terrorist has no good, let alone decisive, justificatory moral reason for murdering them [as if one could possibly exist — RW].


. . . the terrorist is in the process of completing his . . . action of murdering thousands of innocent people. . . . the terrorist is more akin to someone in the process of murdering an innocent person, and refusing to refrain from doing so. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, another individual in the act of murder might be shot by the police. Still:

. . . someone might hold that killing is an absolute moral wrong, i.e., killing anyone — no matter how guilty — is never morally justified. This view is consistent with holding that torture is an absolute moral wrong, i.e. torturing anyone — no matter how guilty — is never morally justified. However, the price of consistency is very high.

Moral absolutism takes consistency to its extreme like, say, nuclear weapons takes killing to its extreme. Both push past the point of absurdity. In the end:

. . . it is difficult to see how torturing (but not killing) the guilty terrorist and saving the lives of thousands could be morally worse than refraining from torturing him and allowing him to murder thousands.

To repeat, the scenario may be too unique to have practical value.

In a postscript, The Unthinkable features a moment that has all the trappings of an inside joke. The demands that Younger finally reveals require the president to announce a cessation of support for what he calls puppet governments in Middle Eastern countries and a withdrawal of American troops from the Middle East. The president’s man responds to Brody and H that that he can’t report the demands to the president since it’s a declared policy of the United States to refuse to negotiate with terrorist. This viewer’s response? Go Younger!

In fact, the sympathy director Jordan invokes in us for a nuclear terrorist is even more insidious than making it easy for us to accept torture.

First posted at the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.


Russ Wellen has long been puzzled by a national security strategy on the part of a superpower such as the United States that leaves tens of millions of its own citizens at risk of dying in a nuclear attack.

About author Russ Wellen edits the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points. He also holds down the “Nukes and Other WMDs” desk for the Faster Times. In addition, he’s associate editor of Scholars & Rogues.