The Terrorist and the Ticking Bomb Essay

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The Terrorist and the Ticking Bomb

The Terrorist and the Ticking Bomb: Ethical Leadership in Supreme Emergencies This week’s case study; the terrorist and the ticking bomb: ethical leadership in supreme emergencies brings out some very complex ethical considerations. More specifically the concept of the “supreme emergency” referred to generally as “situations where, many argue, normal rules should be set aside for extreme measures” (Johnson 2012, pg. 414). Illustrating this concept extended to its fullest measure, the “ticking bomb scenario asks the question: If a person believed to have planted a bomb with the potential to kill many people is in custody; time is short; and the person refuses to divulge the specifics of the bomb; would this be considered grounds for extreme measures (such as torture) in attempt to force him/her to reveal the location of the bomb, potentially saving other human lives? This scenario and question came to the forefront of the thoughts of American leaders and policy makers after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Before those attacks, and based on a long history of holding sacrosanct the rights of the individual, the answer for most American leaders would have been overwhelmingly negative. In light of that attack however, circumstances have changed and asked that same question today many would now answer yes. In fact some observers now argue that “torture has become a core tactic in the war on terror” (Jackson 2007, pg. 354). For others the answer remains that such a scenario doesn’t warrant the violation of the basic ethical standards that Americans generally espouse (Dasgupta 2010, pg. 552). Compelling arguments can and have been made on both sides of this issue. On the “yes” side of the argument are those that would say that torture is generally not acceptable except in such extreme circumstances as the ticking bomb scenario; at which point it is justified because it potentially saves other lives.

From the “no” standpoint the argument can be made that once that line is crossed the “supreme emergency” can ultimately be redefined to include virtually any situation. For them, the idea that torture can be restricted to exceptional situations is ludicrous. “The memos (referring to several official memos that came forward defending the practice of torture in extreme situations) illustrate the ease with which arguments that pretend that torture can exist in liberal society, but only as an exception, quickly lead to erecting a torture culture, a network of institutions and practices that regularize the exception and make it standard operating procedure” (Luban 2005, pg. 1460).

In light of the current world situation and the seemingly permanent war on terror one could fairly easily argue that we are in a state of constant emergency. Such an argument could lead to more and more incidents of torture and its broader use in “everyday” circumstances. In the mind of the author of this draft, the evidence suggests that this question is an either or; if torture is deemed ethical in extreme circumstances torture will soon be viewed by many as ethical in any circumstance. If, on the other hand, torture is not ethical in normal circumstances, torture is not ethical even in a supreme emergency. In the words of author Max Lucado; “Crisis doesn’t develop character; crisis reveals character” (Larranaga, 2009).


Dasgupta, R. (2010). Constitutionality of Torture in a Ticking-Bomb Scenario: History, Compelling Governmental Interests, and Supreme Court Precedents. Pace Law Review, 30(2) 544. Retrieved from Jackson, R. (2007). Language, policy and the construction of a torture culture in the war on terrorism. Review of International Studies, 33(3), 353. Retrieved from Johnson, Craig E. (2012). Meeting the ethical challenges of leadership: casting light or shadow, 4th ed. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications Luban, D. (2005). Liberalism, torture, and the ticking bomb. Virginia Law Review (91) 1425-1461. Retrieved from Larranaga, B. (2009). Bible verses by topic: integrity. Spiritual Kindling Website. Retrieved from

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