Germane to the topic of the upcoming seminar Rob and I are hosting, Can We Survive Technology, someone sent me this great little essay:
Preventing Nuclear War, by Robert Fisher
A similar sentiment to the von Neumann essay our seminar takes it’s name from, but a little more flair.
Ultimately, preventing catastrophic disaster (like nuclear war) is a people problem, not a technology problem.
A great idea:
My favorite activity is inventing. An early arms control proposal dealt with the problem of distancing that the President would have in the circumstances of facing a decision about nuclear war. There is a young man, probably a Navy officer, who accompanies the President. This young man has a black attache case which contains the codes that are needed to fire nuclear weapons. I could see the President at a staff meeting considering nuclear war as an abstract question. He might conclude: “On SIOP Plan One, the decision is affirmative. Communicate the Alpha line xyz.” Such jargon holds what is involved at a distance.
My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, “George, I’m sorry but tens of millions must die.” He has to look at someone and realize what death is – what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality brought home.
When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, “My God, that’s terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgment. He might never push the button.”
And the flair:
The way to enlist support is not to burden others with guilt but to provide them with an opportunity to volunteer. I find it an exciting venture. It is a glorious world outside. There are people to be loved and pleasures to share. We should not let details of past wars and the threat of the future take away the fun and the joy we can have working together on a challenging task. I see no reason to be gloomy about trying to save the world. There is more exhilaration, more challenge, more zest in tilting at windmills than in any routine job. Be involved, not just intellectually but emotionally. Here is a chance to work together with affection, with caring, with feeling. Feel some of your emotions. Don’t be uptight. You don’t have to be simply a doctor, a lawyer, or a merchant. We are human beings. Be human.
People have struggled all of their lives to clear ten acres of ground or simply to maintain themselves and their family. Look at the opportunity we have. Few people in history have been given such a chance – a chance to apply our convictions, our values, our highest moral goals with such competence as our professional skills may give us. A chance to work with others – to have the satisfaction that comes from playing a role, however small, in a constructive enterprise. It’s not compulsory. So much the better. But what challenge could be greater? We have an opportunity to improve the chance of human survival.
In medicine there is a traditional call that strikes a nice balance between duty and opportunity, that invites us to lend a hand with all the skill and compassion we can muster: “Is there a doctor in the house?”
- Preventing Nuclear War, Robert Fisher
- Can We Survive Technology?, John von Neumann
- Can We Survive Technology, Maven seminar