A while ago I read this interesting New Yorker profile of Joel Surnow. As is well known, Surnow’s fascination with the ticking time bomb scenario provides repeated narrative justification for putting Kiefer Sutherland in a room with a variety of torture implements and some unfortunate terrorist. I don’t watch 24, but it did get me thinking about the actual incidence of real-life ticking time bomb scenarios. I finally realized that I was passingly familiar with at least one scenario that comes pretty close.
The ticking time bomb scenario has been of use to torture advocates because it purports to produce a “best case” for the use of torture. The features of the scenario are reasonably well known. A terrorist or individual of similar occupation has been captured. We know, somehow, that a bomb will go off in the very near future in a target of great value. We don’t know exactly when the bomb will go off, or precisely where it is, but we know that our captured terrorist does know where the bomb is, and could supply us with that information if he so chose. In this scenario it is argued, by Alan Dershowitz among others, that torturing the terrorist into giving up the location of the bomb is legitimate and appropriate behavior.
Critiques of this scenario have hammered at the details. How precisely do we know that a bomb will go off, and that it will go off in a high value target? How reliable is our intelligence on this, and how is it that we know the target and time but do not know the location of the bomb? How do we know that the terrorist we have in custody actually has knowledge of the location of the bomb? How can we determine the veracity of the information we acquire under torture? Except for the last, these questions suggest that the “ticking time bomb” scenario, while commonly found on television, isn’t something that actually happens in real life. The last attacks the scenario in another way, suggesting that the proposed solution (torture) is unlikely to have the effect we want (finding the bomb). Finally, doesn’t opening the door to torture in this (extremely stylized) scenario open up the possibility that torture will become more attractive in other scenarios?
Although it didn’t occur to me the first time I wrote it, the experience on the battleship Viribus Unitis is an almost classic ticking time bomb scenario. Viribus Unitis was the first dreadnought of the Austro-Hungarian Navy. In October 1918, when it was becoming clear that the Central Powers would not prevail in the war, and that their navies would become subject to confiscation by the Allies, Emperor Karl I of Austria decided to turn over Viribus Unitis to the newly created Council of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs that would soon occupy formerly Austrian territories on the Adriatic. Italy, however, had designs on some of the Austrian territory that might be turned over to the Croats, and didn’t like the idea of 3 modern dreadnoughts being in the possession of the Austrian successor state. Although the SCS declared that it was no longer at war with the Allies, this declaration was not immediately recognized on the Allied Accordingly, Italy dispatched a pair of young men named Raffaele- one a Lieutenant Paolucci, and the other a Major Rossetti- to infiltrate Pula Harbor on a modified torpedo and attach a bomb to the dreadnought’s hull. This the Raffaeles succeeded in doing, but they were captured while escaping, and brought on board the Viribus Unitis.
When the Raffaeles were brought on board, they told Admiral Vuckovich (the new commander of the dreadnought) that they had affixed a bomb to the hull and that the ship should be evacuated. This put the admiral in an awkward position. He could evacuate, but that would ensure the loss of the battleship when the mine exploded. The Viribus Unitis class was notorious for its poor underwater protection, making the threat of the bomb particularly potent. While it could be argued that the admiral should have evacuated VU anyway, thus saving the lives of his men, the ship was an extraordinarily expensive piece of state property. The men onboard the ship expected that they might have to die or kill in its defense. It was reasonable at the time to believe that the ship might be used to fight or deter the Italians. As such, evacuation doesn’t present a very compelling option. Instead, the admiral decided to keep enough sailors on board to allow the best possible response to the damage that the bomb would cause. Inevitably, it risked the deaths of many sailors, but at the same time held out the best chance for saving the ship.
But what of the Raffaeles? The Italian officers had already admitted that a bomb was attached to the hull, and that it would explode in a relatively short period of time. They begged Admiral Vuckovich to be allowed to escape, and he agreed to let them go. However, when they reached the water they were assailed by angry sailors, and then dragged back onto the ship. Fearing prosecution (and potentially execution) for what amounted to a legally questionable attack on what its owners presumed to be a neutral vessel, the Italians demanded to be treated as prisoners of war. Admiral Vuckovich made no determination at the time, but ordered the crew not to harm the Italians. Twenty-five minutes later the bomb exploded. Fifteen minutes after that Viribus Unitis rolled over and sank with 300 men, including Admiral Vuckovich but not including the Raffaeles, who were allowed by Admiral Vuckovich to escape, and who spent about a week as prisoners of war.
And here are a couple of questions for the gallery. First, does this represent a genuine historical case of a classic ticking time bomb scenario? The Croats didn’t have a lot of time to torture the Italians, but they could be fairly certain that the bomb existed and that the Italians knew where it was. If they had discovered the location, the Croats might have been able to either disable the bomb or to prepare damage control around the area of the explosion. Moreover, they may even have had enough time to confirm or disconfirm statements made under torture by the Italians.
Would the torture have worked? The Italians clearly wanted to stay alive, but they didn’t give up the location of the bomb even when it seemed certain that they would fall victim to it. Whether they would have given up the information under threat of severe pain in addition to death is unclear. Had they given up the location of the bomb and survived, the Raffaeles would have probably have been made the object of scorn and derision in Italy, rather than receiving treatment as heroes.
How much weight should be placed on the behavior of Admiral Vuckovich? Charged with the defense of the ship, which entailed a willingness to see his sailors die and to kill the sailors of the enemy, Vuckovich decided that the information wasn’t worth torturing the Italians. His decision likely depended upon a combination of utilitarian calculus, professional honor, and perhaps a revulsion against torture. It’s possible that he made a mistake, but his evaluation of the situation should weigh heavily on the historical ledger.
The real lesson, of course, is that learning about battleships enriches everyone’s life.