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The Fisher Protocol: How to Prevent Disastrous Decisions

The nuclear football is a leather briefcase that manages to weigh more than your check-in luggage. Carried by the U.S. President’s aide, it contains a communications device and the launch codes for America’s atomic weapons. The button, or simply football are other affectionate nicknames for this innocuous accessory that can bring death to millions of people in any place on the globe from anywhere in the world. Should the President ever make use of it, he will be awfully detached from the lethal consequences of his action. The Fisher Protocol seeks to change that by making the President’s decision more real than a politician can stomach.

What Is the Fisher Protocol?

The Fisher Protocol is a procedure designed to take the President’s decision about launching nuclear weapons out of the abstract and back to reality. It was developed by Roger Fisher, a negotiation and conflict management expert at Harvard University. In the March 1981 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, he pondered:

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.

To bridge that distance, Fisher had a radical solution:

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.

It’s as gory as effective. Currently, the President would give a jargonised command that leads to a series of more jargonised commands that lead to the launch of ballistic missiles which eventually leads to the annihilation of innumerable innocent human lives. In the immediate aftermath, the President wouldn’t even witness the carnage first-hand. He’d probably watch it from a safe distance on a screen in a bunker.

The Fisher Protocol, on the other hand, is like a practical Premortem Analysis focused on morals. The decision-maker must demonstrate a personal commitment to kill, thereby revealing potential flaws in his judgment to strike. This is done by quite literally butchering poor George. His trusted aide who’s perhaps been by the President’s side for seven years, telling himself this day would never come. A seemingly unnecessary yet symbolic inaugural kill.

The Dynamics Behind the Fisher Protocol

Fisher’s idea boils down to a radical reduction in the distance between a decision that mainly affects others and its consequences on them. I would argue there are four ways Fisher’s idea manages to achieve that. Namely the distance between decision and outcome with regard to time, emotions, language and physical space.

Temporal Distance

Over the past centuries, Western civilisation has evolved both technologically and socially. So has our relationship with our mortality. Gone are the days in which death was a visible part of everyday life. If we are confronted with it, it’s in filtered or fictionalised form; through the media or for entertainment purposes. The memory of the horrors of the big wars of the 20th century seems to fade with every new generation. The horrors of the new wars aren’t shown as explicitly in the mainstream media as they used to be.

There’s a similar dynamic when it comes to our mortality. Today, we hardly have to fight for our survival and our lives are all but “guaranteed”, as BJJ philosopher John Danaher put it. So our minds are freed up to seek meaning elsewhere and see violence and death as a topic to avoid. Death has become somewhat of a taboo subject in the West. As a result, we’re arguably more removed from the reality of death than we’ve ever been.

Fisher’s protocol forces the President to remind himself of the meaning of life and death, thereby reducing the temporal distance. This reminder sets in even before the moment nuclear war is on the cards. It happens as soon as the Commander in Chief is briefed about the new innovative procedure of launching the nukes: “Mr President, meet George. Please familiarise yourself with his butcher knife, which you will use on him in the event of nuclear war.”

Emotional Distance

Avoiding emotional judgments is generally considered a virtue in decision-making. Feelings such as hate and anger tend to be short-lived and tempt us into making impulsive calls. When lives are at stake, rationality is preferred over choosing to make decisions solely based on the feeling du jour. But going for the non-emotional response doesn’t mean we should ignore how we feel.

The truth is we need both. Rather than taking emotions out of the equation of decision-making, we need to integrate them. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman has shown, both a rational, intellectual and an instinctive, emotional part operates within our brain. Methods such as Structured Analytic Techniques attempt to funnel intuition as well as rational arguments into sound judgment. Similarly, the key to negotiations is to work with human emotions rather than against them.

Fisher addresses the emotional distance in the process of launching a nuclear strike. The process of letting millions of people burn to death or die from radiation is a frighteningly clinical one. The Harvard professor’s solution is to counter the prevailing abstraction with raw feelings. Sure, the chief diplomat still gets to use apathetic military jargon. But only after going through the emotional rollercoaster of finding that damn capsule beneath George’s heart using the presidential butcher knife.

Linguistic Distance

Language, as Fisher alluded to, is another way we create distance between our decisions and their consequences. Euphemisms of war such as enhanced interrogation methods and collateral damage are classic ways to conceal uncomfortable truths about violence, torture and death. The decision-makers who use them rarely carry out the painful and deadly actions themselves.

Similarly, George Orwell condemned the linguistic trickery of bureaucrats and policy-makers in his essay Politics and the English Language. Jargon, the passive voice and other obfuscating language were hallmarks of sloppy thinking that resulted in bad policies. His solution was a set of six writing rules to bring clarity back to word and action. Writing clearly could bring about a “deep change in attitude”.

Even for those less familiar with the intricacies of nuclear warfare, it should be clear that Presidents do not throw the nuclear missiles themselves. His weapons are his words. Not so much with the Fisher Protocol, which demands a deed, and a personal and deadly one at that. Death now has a name, too. Its name is George. And explaining to George why he must die will be infinitely harder to jargonise than the instructions to launch the nukes. (Though, I’m sure they’d find a standard operating procedure for that, too.)

Physical Distance

Finally, there’s the factor of physical distance. Killing ten people by dropping a bomb from a drone that you’re operating from the comfort of your home halfway around the world isn’t nothing. But it takes less physical courage than stabbing the same people in hand-to-hand combat. The former allows the mind to pretend it’s all just a video game. The latter makes it difficult to ignore the consequences of your decision to kill.

Trolley Problem Meme
The Trolley Problem

The famous Trolley Problem illustrates this vividly. In the thought experiment, a runaway trolley is bound to kill five people tied to the tracks. You have the power to save them by deciding to pull a lever and divert the trolley. If you do it, only one person dies on the other tracks. The innocuous action of pulling the lever (or not) from a safe distance sets in motion a series of events that lead to other people’s demise.

There are many variations of the Trolley Problem meme, some of which play with physical distance between you and the victims. Unsurprisingly, the decision gets harder, the less abstract and the more personal and up-close you get to them. Just like Fisher intended by making poor George the symbolic stand-in for the people the President would kill from far away.

The Fisher Protocol in Everyday Life

The Fisher Protocol is a radical approach within the context of a radical act of violence. But even if you’re not the Commander in Chief of a nuclear power, there are still lessons to be learned. In everyday life, it helps to conduct a reality check inspired by Fisher’s proposal. Lessons about decisions and their first, second and third-order consequences. Here are some suggestions on how to reduce the distance between a difficult decision and its enduring effects.

Before you make the decision to fire an employee, invite yourself to his home to have dinner with his wife and kids: “George, I’m sorry but you’re not going to be able to afford this wonderful home of yours for much longer.” Before you put your mum into a care home, go live there yourself for a week: “I’m sorry, mum, but I think you’ll enjoy those weekly bingo nights as much as I did.” It all comes down to experiencing the potential disaster you’re about to unleash on others.

Closing Thoughts

In case you wondered, Fisher’s barbaric idea was never put into practice. At least not to my knowledge. There just wasn’t an appetite for this kind of decision-making. His friends at the Pentagon were horrified: “My God, that’s terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgment. He might never push the button.”