Tom Atlee: Upshifting Empathy — and Burying Nuclear Code in a Human Who Must be Killed by the President Before Using…

Cultural Intelligence, Peace Intelligence
Tom Atlee
Tom Atlee

Upshifting our limited empathy to face Big Issues

Our empathy is built in us with a kind of disconnect which can make it hard to usefully integrate our feelings with our reason. This has profound implications for the climate crisis, the possibilities of nuclear war, and many other “extinction level” issues. A leading negotiator offers a provocative story to stimulate our thinking about this, to which I add some videos.

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Given that context, I stumbled yesterday on the little story below, written by the late Roger Fisher, co-author of the watershed negotiation classic Getting to Yes: How to Negotiate Agreement Without Giving In. His story was written 33 years ago at the height of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union when many people – myself included – felt that we were on the edge of a global thermonuclear war which would have quite thoroughly wiped out all higher forms of life on earth – and which could have happened at a moment’s notice, even by accident (and still could).

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FROM “PREVENTING NUCLEAR WAR” BY ROGER FISHER
BULLETIN OF THE ATOMIC SCIENTISTS, MARCH 1981

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.“

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