There are two things that too many of us seem to be reluctant to take in about present conditions on our planet—the first is the threat of mass death, either suddenly by nuclear war, or gradually by changes in climate. The second is the possibility of reconciliation among enemies on the basis of common goals. Our brains are not particularly well wired by evolution to see either of these both as an immediate threat and as an equally immediate, available opportunity. Perhaps for the first time in history, we are gradually becoming aware that the two shed significant light on each other. In fact, in our historical moment they have become an inseparable duality. As the poet W.S. Auden wrote, “We must love one another or die.”
In a world where nuclear weapons are so destructive that it would only take the detonation of a few hundred of them to fatally affect agricultural production around the globe, perhaps we can now begin to see the absurdity of our hatreds in a new light—almost as if we were growing a new kind of mind more evolutionarily suited to the realities that loom around us. The destructiveness of our weapons is so enormous in scale, that even the most intractable loathing and fear we may feel weighs like a feather measured against a ton of lead. It is really the same, in only a slightly less urgent way, for global climate instability: the imperative has become a level of cooperation on the basis of a shared desire to survive that our evolution has not prepared us for as well as it might, but which is nonetheless essential.
It’s as if a malign alien presence had landed on the earth and all the parties to international and civil conflict, Sunnis and Shia, Arab and Jew, the U.S. and the Taliban, suddenly realized that we had so much more in common with each other as members of the human species than with the aliens, that it would become obvious that we needed to cooperate against the common threat. But we do face a common threat: war itself, with the potential of any war anywhere going nuclear by accident, misunderstanding or passive drift. The “alien” we ought to fear and unite to overcome is found in two places, one physically real, the other psychologically real: the weapons themselves, and the way we have been programmed by evolution to think about the “other,” the different, the fearsome stranger, the enemy.
Our collective fears, hates and desires for security have led us to unlock the secrets of the atom and evolve out of those secrets a bizarre system: deterrence by mutually assured destruction. If we again imagined aliens coming to our planet, this time benign ones, how amazed they would be by the utter ridiculousness of the trap we have willingly set for ourselves. Would they be able to distinguish between the hapless terrorism of the suicide bomber and the strategic deliberation of the nuclear “balance of terror”? Are these two so completely different? Certainly not either in their threat to the innocent or in their futility.
The trap in full is not just deterrence, but the way we think about the usefulness of any kind of violence, on any level, to solve problems—the assumptions humans make that flying a plane into a building or setting off a bomb in a marketplace will make a positive difference. The extraordinary freedom of the human condition includes the tragic built-in freedom to kill. This freedom is so very easy to indulge even within the web of a quasi-organized civil society, as we see in the president of the Philippines’ murderous extra-judicial war against drugs.
Many of us are distressed that one duly elected, but apparently very thin-skinned, leader will soon be given the authority to cause mass death on a planetary level. We pray that his obsession with business success will preoccupy him with making deals rather than making wars. At least we can be somewhat consoled by the fact that the international markets he seeks to dominate will not benefit from nuclear annihilation.
But our apparent programming, our collective thin skin, is not biologically inevitable. History confirms the absurdity of enemy-imaging by recording how arbitrary our animosities are as seen over time—Americans who once incinerated Japanese soldiers with flame throwers or Viet Cong with napalm are now welcome in Japan or Vietnam as tourists or business people.
There is only one way out of our self-devised trap, and that is relationship. The opportunity for relationship is immediate, instant, all around us at every moment, even if we seem to be wired instinctively to hide within our skin, be it thin or thick. I recently entered my first board meeting of a non-profit and made a casually insensitive comment about Mr. Trump’s press conference circus. Next to me sat a woman who unapologetically made it clear that she had voted for the man—but kept her genuine welcoming smile in place.
I felt so grateful that her friendliness and willingness to work with me did not diminish in spite of my off-hand sarcasm, and so we were able to begin a fruitful dialogue—the topic of which became—surprise!—the need for more fruitful dialogue.
Her sort of friendliness may be the light of the world. It is a ton of gold weighed against the feather of our momentary and potentially superficial political opposition to each other. Sometimes initiating and maintaining a culture of connection may not come easy, but it is constantly there as a possibility. The hoary cliché has never been more relevant and important: a stranger is just a friend we haven’t met yet. And if that is true, why isn’t it just as true that an enemy is just someone we haven’t tried hard enough to be friends with yet?