The Corpus Callosum

In the most recent debate among Presidential hopefuls in the
Democratic Party, there was an exchange regarding the so-called
“ticking bomb” question.  The question itself, and the way it
was handled, reveals shortcomings in the way we evaluate our candidates.

TIM RUSSERT: I want to move to another subject, and this involves a
comment that a guest on Meet the Press made, and I want to read it as
follows: “Imagine the following scenario. We get lucky. We
get the number three guy in al-Qaeda. We know there’s a big
bomb going off in America in three days, and we know this guy knows
where it is. Don’t we have the right and responsibility to
beat it out of him? You could set up a law where the president could
make a finding or could guarantee a pardon.”

You can read a partial transcript and watch the video at Democracy

I think it is a dumb question.  The responses tell you
nothing, no matter how the candidate answers.  The fact is,
people in general are not very good at anticipating their own behavior
in response to hypothetical situations.  While they may
honestly say what they think they would do, they
cannot say what they actually would do.
 This is particularly true in situations that are highly
charged emotionally, and when there an element of time pressure.

Besides, who cares what a candidate would do in that
situation?  Are we really going to vote for someone on the
basis of a response to an incredibly unlikely scenario?  

No, we are not.  But perhaps the exercise has some peripheral

Listening to the responses of the candidates, it is clear that if there
is any useful information in their responses, the value is not in the
literal answer to the question.  The value comes from what the
candidates reveal about their values and their problem-solving ability.

Asking people questions about their values tends to be a waste of time,
because there is no way of assessing how well the answer corresponds to
the person’s behavior.  In order to how a person’s value
affect their behavior, you have to watch their behavior.
 Still, if there is a good correlation between what someone
says about their values, and what they do, it tells you a little bit
about them.  But most of what you learn comes from watching
what they do, not listening to what they say.

Plus, people cannot tell you what their values really are, unless they
actually know what their values are.  Often, that is not the
case.  There are few people who are both
sufficiently narcissistic to run for President, and
sufficiently insightful to know what their own values are.

What is more valuable, then, is to ask candidates directly about how
they solve problems.  That is really what you want to know,
and that is really what we pay them to do, once elected.  We
pay them to solve problems.

So why not just ask them directly about how they solve problems, since
that is what we really want to know?

So let’s not ask what the candidate would do in a hypothetical
situation.  What would be more interesting, and more useful,
would be to ask these questions: Here is the situation (explain
hypothetical situation).  From you point of view, what
problems do you think this situation would present?  How would
you go about solving those problems?

It is always more informative to find out how
people think, rather that what they think.


  1. #1 John McKay
    September 30, 2007

    I’m going to base my vote on what the candidate says they would do if Mole Man sucked the Baxter building into a hole and kidnapped Sue Richards. I’m voting for the one that would shout, “It’s clobberin’ time!” and jump into the hole*. It’s as least as realistic as the ticking bomb scenario.

    * Second place goes to the one that would shout, “Flame on!” and jump into the hole, although I’m not looking into the hole after either one jumps.

  2. #2 kevin
    September 30, 2007

    Here is a possible answer I might respect, though I have not heard anyone give it (to be sure, I’ve only thought about this question for about 2 minutes, though…)

    Would I, as President, authorize torture in this situation?

    Yes, but I would make sure that everyone on the chain between me and the people actually doing the torture were fully aware that we were all deliberately and intentionally breaking U.S. and international law, and that we were all going to be held accountable after the fact. And that I, as President, would resign my office and then plead guilty to an international criminal tribunal, and would expect everyone on the chain of command, all the way down to the interrogators, to do likewise. And that I would also, testify to the guilt of everyone involved, and expect us all to be found guilty and appropriately punished.

    Torture is wrong, and our laws should reflect that. But perhaps there may be some exceptional case — like this (pathetic and unrealistic) ticking bomb question? If so, the barrier should be high — high enough at least to be willing to put your own life (career, freedom, and future) on the line as collateral for the decision. This should give everyone comfort that the President would not make a decision like this lightly, on a whim, as it seems to be now.

  3. #3 bigTom
    September 30, 2007

    As much as I hate hypotheticals -and especially that one, I have to say I was comfortable with every Democratic candidates answer, and unfortable with all the Republican candidates answers (excepting possibly McCain). So we torture, and all sorts of other unconstitutional abuses being a big issue, I think this was an important question, though not one which meaningfully seperates the candidates within either primary, but it very clearly shows that on at least one very important issue the parties are poles apart.

    I do agree that Kevins response is the right one. “I’m not sure? I might do something illegal, and I wouldn’t expect to get a free pass just because I thought it necessary”. That is really the most honest answer.

  4. #4 Ken Mareld
    October 1, 2007

    Kevin’s answer is about right. A decision to torture is a decision to sacrifice. Sacrifice is what soldiers do all the time in war. If leader participates in an illegal action then his sacrifice is that he is subject to the legal consequences of that action. It gives a moral cover to an immoral act done for the greater good. If that leader is not accountable, than it is simply an immoral act.

  5. #5 blf
    October 1, 2007

    Ok, so you captured this woman who you think knows where the bomb you think has been planted has been planted.

    You start beating her.

    She says there is an armed nuclear weapon timed to detonate in a day or two. She says it’s buried behind a giant reenforced concrete plug that will take days to penetrate, and in any case, the bomb has an auxiliary vibration fuse.

    She says the bomb is buried under Tehran Iran.

    Now what do you do?

  6. #6 Rob Jase
    October 1, 2007

    McKay had the right answer to start with.

    As long as politics has evolved down to where ’60’s comics relevancy began we may as well go all the way.

    Besides, Dr. Doom addressed the UN decages before whats-his-name.

  7. #7 stumpy
    October 1, 2007

    What if, due to faulty intelligence, the guy we think is the number three man in the al-Quaeda terrorist organization turns out to be the number three man in All-Kite-ah, a children’s toy store run by dyslexic Pakistanis? And what if, rather than a “big bomb” about to go off somewhere, it turns out that he is actually talking about a “Big Bum”, maybe belonging to a fat American CIA operative who forgot to take his Bean-O? Should we still torture him? And maybe declare war on somebody?

  8. #8 decrepitoldfool
    October 1, 2007

    She says the bomb is buried under Tehran Iran.
    Now what do you do?

    Finally! An easy unrealistic hypothetical question. I call up the Iranians and warn them, and offer any possible help evacuating Tehran.

    I wish some candidate had said; “Torture should always be illegal. If this extreme hypothetical situation occurs, and a bomb is found, we could discuss a presidential pardon. But no provision in the law for torture.”

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