Counterfactuals and metacognition regarding ticking time bombs and torture: A lesson from Mel Gibson

Payback, a Mel Gibson thriller from 1999, is a tough and visceral film, with an extraordinary torture scene involving a hammer. Gibson plays Porter, a hardened, unpleasant enforcer and killer, who is possessed of a curious sense of honour (and seemingly lacking a forename). Payback nicely shows that torture can be used to extract information, but that the information extracted is neither complete nor useful, and is in fact wholly destructive to those who forced its extraction.

Gibson, playing Porter, is captured by his enemies, is taken to a garage, tied to a chair and asked to voluntarily give up the information regarding where he has imprisoned the lead mobster’s (played by Kris Kristofferson) son. He refuses to do so, whereupon his shoes and socks are removed. He is menaced with a hammer and understands that non-disclosure means imminent agony. He is asked to disclose where the son is again. He refuses to do so and the small toe of his right foot is crushed irreparably with the hammer, after his refusal. This will cause terrible of pain and agony, unsurprisingly.

Cleverly, we are not shown his crushed toes – these are left to the imagination (and would presumably look like pulped meat). He is asked again of the son’s location, and he again refuses to disclose the son’s location. The hammer is applied again with great force, crushing another toe, again irreparably. He is asked again to disclose where he has imprisoned his captor’s son. This time he does so; he is removed from his chair, placed in the trunk of a car and driven to the location (a seedy hotel) where the son is allegedly being held. His captors move rapidly inside the hotel, run upstairs to the room where the son is believed to be held, and enter the room whereupon a phone rings, causing a booby-trap bomb which has been placed under the bed to explode, killing them all.

Porter has managed to escape from the trunk through the soft fabric back seat of the car and has used the car phone to cause the discharge of the explosives. The narrative here points to a compelling problem with the use of extreme stressors to force a captive to disclose information in what is supposedly real time. In this case Porter has lied and willingly endured terrible suffering, in order to give the appearance and substance of having told the truth, in order to lure his captors to their deaths and to save himself.

There are several interesting features of his lying. In order for Porter to ensure his lies are convincing, he knows that he must endure terrible pain and suffering. He must also be able to make a reasonable estimate of the degree to which he must suffer in order for his captors to be convinced of the apparent truth of what he is about to say. Too little, and he will not be believed; too much, and he may not survive.

Thus Porter engages in the sort of metacognition only possible to someone possessing “Theory of Mind” – he is able to infer the psychological states of others, and to infer what others in turn are likely to be thinking about him. In turn, Porter uses his estimate of what others are likely to be thinking about him in order to turn the tables against them – a form of metacognitive capacity known as ‘deceptive intent’. Porter is also capable of enduring great pain in the present moment in order to achieve a much greater deferred reward in the future. Porter therefore presents a case of extreme self-control – even in the face of an imminent and terrible attack on his bodily integrity. (I would guess, given the trials and tribulations of his private life, that Mel Gibson might regret not having more of Porter’s extreme self-control!). Porter manifests this self-control in the face of what will be overwhelming pain signals from the periphery of his body. Stubbing a toe is painful enough; having your toes systematically crushed, one-by-one, and anticipating this, will be much worse. The narrative drive here is different from the usual fictional situation with the ticking time bomb, but those focused on the ticking time bomb rationale will rarely if ever discuss other possible scenarios. Such scenarios will immediately falsify the reasoning involved which leads to torture as the only possible route to needed knowledge.

The point here really is this: the ticking time bomb scenario is most-often presented with a single rationale (a big bomb, a population centre, and now!), but this presentation is both idealised and abstracted, to use Henry Shue’s formulation in his famous paper, Torture in Dreamland: Disposing of the ticking bomb. In fact, there are any number of possible variations possible amidst the chaos of the real world. Dummy bombs, proxies, booby-traps, misdirections, lying to run down the clock, several bombs: you name it, any and all are possible. Devoting lots of serious thinking to a single counterfactual with a single narrative drive with a singular ‘man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ storyline is to deny the actual reality of human ingenuity.

And if Porter can subvert torture with metacognition and self-control… then those who take the ticking time bomb scenario seriously (like Michael Ignatieff) really need to get out to the cinema more. Of course, the tortures that will be imposed by willing amateurs on prisoners in the field in order to loosen tongues in a truthful way complex scenarios involving possible double-dealing, incomplete knowledge and deceptive intent are never specified by those who take seriously the ticking time bomb. And of the blood and filth involved in torture? They are silent on this, and on the amateurs who are supposed to know ‘what to do’.

They might learn that even movie scenarios are more complex than the ‘exceptional case’  that they cogitate.

My book, Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation is available on Amazon  (published by Harvard University Press).

See also:

Click to access 62.shue.pdf

Unthinking the Ticking Bomb – David Luban

Liberalism, Torture, and the Ticking Bomb – David Luban

Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist, Psychologist, Writer

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