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Paperback ISBN: 9781912248582

eBook ISBN: 9781912248599

160 pages

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"As passionate as it is rigorous... Anyone sickened by the global re-emergence of torture as a ‘tool of justice’ will find resources for resistance here."

Bob Brecher, University of Brighton


"A must-read book for anyone interested in how the authoritarian turn since 9/11 has been legitimised in popular culture."

Peter Morey, University of Birmingham


"A timely, thoroughly compelling critique that deserves the widest possible readership."

Sam Thomas, Durham University

Published by Repeater Books in 2019.

Audiobook read by Antony Ferguson published by Blackstone Publishing in 2019.

Arabic translation by Iman Marouf published by Takween Publishing in 2020.


If there was a bomb hidden somewhere in a major city, and you had the person responsible in your custody, would you torture them to get the information needed to stop the bomb exploding, preventing a devastating terrorist attack and saving thousands of lives?

This is the ticking bomb scenario — a thought experiment designed to demonstrate that torture can be justified.

In How to Justify Torture, cultural critic Alex Adams examines the ticking bomb scenario in-depth, looking at the ways it is presented in films, novels, and TV shows — from Batman Begins and Dirty Harry to French military thrillers and home invasion narratives. By critiquing its argument step by step, this short, provocative book reminds us that, despite what the ticking bomb scenario will have us believe, torture can never be justified.


Introduction: Torture and the Texture of Common Sense

One: Utility: Torture as Objective Technology

Two: Virtue: Dark Heroism from Dirty Harry to Daredevil

Three: Protectivity: Torture as Parental Responsibility

Conclusion: Anatomy of a Ticking Bomb


"The way to challenge the scenario, and what I have attempted to do in my book, is to refuse to answer the question that the ticking bomb scenario asks us. There is no good answer to the question, for the simple reason that it is not a good question. Instead, in my book I have attempted to deconstruct it and to show that it is actually a trick question composed of lots of reactionary and fascist ideas."

The Translator Interviews the Author: Alex Adams on Torture and its Justifications, an Arabic language interview with translator Iman Marouf at Takween Creative Writing Platform on 12/1/2021. PDF (English language translation)

"The claim that culture is political is, for me, quite a simple claim: Parliaments, philosophy seminars and talk shows aren’t the only places where we have public debates about moral, ethical and political debates. Sometimes we have them in the cinema or on Netflix."

Making Torture American Again, With Help From Hollywood, an interview with Kasia Anderson at Truthdig on 23/9/2019. PDF

Absolutely fascinating [...] The writing is spectacular.

Torture and the Bomb that Never Existed, an audio interview with This Is Hell! recorded and broadcast on 7/9/2019. 

"There are many urgent conversations to be had about torture, and ticking bombs feature in none of them. Nonetheless, it has become a ubiquitous argument. [...] In sum, the ticking bomb scenario works, and has remained popular and persuasive, because these three ideas — utility, virtue and protectivity — dynamically overlap and interact to create a false idea: that torture can be justified."

How Pop Culture Tries to Justify Torture, an op-ed I wrote that was published by Truthout on 7/9/2019. PDF

"What I would like to think I have done with this book is give people a set of tools on how to respond to the ticking bomb scenario. I wanted to give people a way of saying, well actually that’s wrong, think about it from this perspective."

Getting Away With Torture is Easy When You're Captain America, an interview with Paola de Varona at The Outline on 5/9/2019. PDF

"Oh my God, he's actually referenced that bit in Always Sunny when Frank's waterboarding Dee in the toilet."


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