Step by Step
The world is moving Step by Step toward hostilities. The cras handling of China by Trump and the increasingly assertive stance of Beijing towards the USA, and with it the west, is ominous. I have been here before. In 1939 I was old enough to know that we were moving Step by Step in the direction nobody wanted to go. The tears that were shed in the church I was attending at the moment war was declared were tears of experience – they, too, had been there, only twenty years earlier. They were also tears of weariness. Military build-up costs money, shortens lives.
No, of course we’re not going to war. With the weapons we have now, the planet and its soon-to-be 9Bn population couldn’t take it. No, it’s unthinkable. Of course not. But there are many stages before war that require a decision on when will the next step be a step too far. Nobody knows which will be that critical step. In 1938 it was waving a useless “peace” paper. At the time it seemed innocent enough. Indeed, even peaceful. Nobody saw it as the last straw.
But it was. And when you reach the last straw it is too late. Time has run out. What happens next is unwanted, unreasonable, illogical killing. In today’s world that could be manifest as sanctions forbidding physical access, then technological blocking of the internet. Soon enough messages of love would be forbidden. When sharing knowledge stops, discrimination follows and slavery is close behind. With education now at such a high level, and information everyone’s treat, we could never sink so low again. Some may tell you otherwise. They surely cannot be right.
Red lines are much discussed in negotiations. They are often breached, but their existence is proof of effort to keep a standard, to act like humans with a point of view. When they are real, red lines serve to profess a belief, not in the hope of eternity but in the recognition of present. How we behave is what shows our character. How we behave towards others is what shows our worth.
The trouble is that red lines get drawn at dusk when the time they are needed is dawn. Raise the flag at sundown and nobody can see it. “My standards are…” is worth something. “My standards were…” is useless. Whatever afterlife there may be does not make it this life. For here and now we must be what we want to be seen to be. As a truism it sounds trite. As a practice it sounds tough. As a yardstick of diplomatic negotiation it sounds impossible. But Darwin was not wrong. We just hope that the reason we acquired compensates for the brutishness we have abandoned.
Or thought we had. The walrus fighter avoids his opponent’s eyes and there are many examples in nature where the battle for supremacy stops short of threatening the survival of the species. There are other forces in plenty that threaten and destroy species – several thousand a day, we are told. Overcrowding, climate change, pandemics of overwhelming viruses, all threaten humans. We have yet to discover what the widespread harbouring of nuclear waste will do. And as fast as we rein in our own detritus, we create more chemical deposits contaminating what struggles to support us.
The dominant creatures in all this are ourselves. Capable of feats undreamt of even ten years ago we are on the brink of achieving immortality, providing lifelong health, dismissing suffering and banishing poverty. Our lives could be whatever we want them to be – provided we know what is best for us, which at present seems doubtful. Our goal as a species should now be to make purpose as important as achievement, to make philosophy of life rational and to make our actions consistent with our reason.
And to draw our red lines before it is too late in the day.
For without them we have no hope of survival.
That is the enigma we face.