Hugo Shorts: “As the Last I May Know”, S.L. Huang

In 1981, renowned law professor and expert on negotiation, Roger Fisher put forward a novel idea for limiting the chance of a nuclear war without wholly removing America’s capacity for a nuclear deterrent. Published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (here via Google Books) Fisher’s idea was horrifically 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.”

It’s like a kind of reverse Trolley Problem: If you are prepared to kill millions (billions) of people, then are you prepared to kill one?

S.L.Huang takes Fisher’s premise and places it within an imagined world. A nation that has faced the horror of war and which enacted a law in which the President of that nation must kill a child if they with to unleash their own weapons of mass destruction.

Han wrested his attention around to her, and Nyma quailed.
“Of course you do,” he said. He turned back to Tej. “You people teach her to say this, and then if I need the codes for the weapons that could protect us all, you put them inside a child and tell me I have to slaughter her. You’re despicable.”
Tej had to force his expression to stillness. “Sir.”
“Do you know what the Baron Islands are doing to our people in the southern territories right now? Do you know what they’ve promised to do to the people of Koivu and Mikata? Koivu has sere missiles themselves. If the Islanders get a hold of that technology . . . trust me, they won’t force their leaders to kill little girls in order to use them. Even if they did, those leaders wouldn’t hesitate.”
Tej could have argued every one of those points for hours. He could have pointed out balances of power and morality, or expounded on the Order’s core belief, that no one should be able to push a button from the sanctuary of an office and kill so many faceless children far away if they could not see the justification to execute the one in front of them.
Without such a burden, how would any president fully understand what he did when he asked to use such weapons?”

Nyma is a child of the Order and Tej is her tutor. The Order has been tasked with the duty to maintain the ritual around this deterrent to deterrence. With a brutal war on-going and a new president installed, Nyma must step into the horrific role.

The story reveals this premise in parts but places its focus on the relationship and personalities of Nyma, the President and Tej her tutor as the war advances around them.

It is a deeply sad peace: the president in an impossible position, the poetry of Nyma, the moral culpability of the Order positioned against the dilemma of war. The story pushes past the morality of the circumstance to focus on the people involved, bringing out the personal aspect that is actually at heart of Fisher’s proposal. Killing abstract people is not at all the same psychologically as killing a person (or at least it shouldn’t be).

The story sits knowingly within the trappings of the fantastical. The weapons aren’t nuclear weapons as such, the setting isn’t the USA, the president is not an analogue or metaphor for any particular American president. That distance of imagination sensibly avoids the questions around loopholes and ways out of the situation or even what a cynical politician might actually do. The dilemma proposed is implausible and the story knows that and by placing it within a more unreal setting it side-steps those questions.

I can’t say that I like the story. I appreciate attempts to give flesh to ethical dilemmas but the essence of such attempts I also find upsetting. It is a powerful story of great craft and imagination but also distressing and bleak amid moments of beauty and compassion.


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