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Ticking bombs

(a comment made on a thread at TPMCafé, probably in 2005)

I know of precisely two real cases that correspond fairly closely to the "ticking bomb" scenario. It's salutary to examine exactly what happened.

1. Fernand Yveton, Algiers, November 1958.

Over to Alastair Horne, A Savage War of Peace, p.204:

"Fernand Yveton, a Communist, had been caught red-handed placing a bomb in the gasworks where he was employed. But a second bomb had not been discovered, and if it exploded and set off the gasometers thousands of lives might be lost. Nothing would induce Yveton to reveal its whereabouts, and Teitgen [Paul Teitgen, Secretary-General of the Algiers préfecture] was pressed by his Chief of Police to have Yveton passé à la question :

But I refused to have him tortured. I trembled the whole afternoon, Finally the bomb did not go off. Thank God I was right, because if you once get into the torture business, you're lost... Understand this, fear was the basis of it all."

2. Magnus Gäfgen, October 2002 (source: press accounts)

An 11-year-old boy, Jakob von Metzler, the son of a rich Frankfurt banker, had been kidnapped. The Frankfurt police arrested a man who they were convinced was responsible, Magnus Gäfgen. Interrogated, he admitted the kidnapping but refused to tell them where he was keeping the boy. As time passed, the fear grew that the boy's life might be slipping away in some underground hideout. Wolfgang Daschner, the deputy commissioner of the Frankfurt police, signed a written order, which only came to light last week, instructing his subordinates to try to extract the necessary information "by means of the infliction of pain, under medical supervision and subject to prior warning". The warning alone proved enough. A terrified Gäfgen indicated the boy's whereabouts. But he had already been murdered.

Daschner was later suspended and charged with a criminal offence, amid political controversy. (He claimed the order was only intended as a threat).


These accounts illustrate one evident truth about such extreme situations: they are not known for certain. Yveton's bomb didn't go off or maybe didn't exist, Jakob was already dead. These examples are in fact unusual in the amount of true information held by the interrogators: Yveton was caught red-handed, not someone seen in the neighbourhood or with bomb-making materials in his flat; Gäfgen admitted the kidnapping. Even so, the interrogators' assumptions were wrong on the key points that are used in ticking-bomb arguments to justify torture.

Note that Teitgen's refusal was absolute; he was a Resistance hero, Dachau survivor and had been tortured himself seven times by the Gestapo. He did not think that torture would have been justified even had the bomb gone off. Such men were rare in Algiers in 1958, especially men in authority. Yveton was incredibly lucky.