I spent the morning of Saturday, January 13, 2018, in an unfamiliar emotional state. Jumbled feelings of abject dread, of denial and then resignation, of sorrow at the idea of things left unaccomplished, and the overwhelming sense of helplessness for myself and my loved ones, followed by a sequential sense of relief, then confusion and then anger that left me mostly incapacitated for much of the long weekend.
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” The words were splayed across my cell phone screen and those words, combined with that extra hard vibration cell phones emit when shit is seriously going wrong, will be forever ingrained in my mind.
Like many Hawaii residents, I was left in emotional flux after the false alarm, oscillating between a kind of manic joy and deep depression at the thought of what could have been. Mixed in between was a roughly hour-long period of anger in which I ranted and raved against the Hawaii Emergency Management Authority (HEMA), the Ige Administration, bureaucrats in general, and “the guy who pushed the wrong button.”
How dare they put us through that. How dare they make me feel so insignificant and afraid. Someone was responsible for making me feel that way. Somebody needed to be punished.
I’ve seen this train of thought echoed in the subsequent days, from members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation to popular columnists in Honolulu’s daily calling for the resignation of HEMA’s director, Vern Miyagi, or even of Governor David Ige. The focus of journalistic inquiry, too, seems to be levied at the poor interface design that led to the mistake being made, or on how to survive a nuclear blast in a state with zero fallout shelters. But, just as my initial lust for punishment gave way to a more thoughtful critique of the situation on Saturday, so too must we recenter and reframe our public discourse about what happened and why. Our questions must be placed in a broader context of global militarism and a deeper realization about Hawaii’s place in the Pacific and its connection to the United States’ legacy of imperialism and plans for continued global hegemony achieved through force.
A lot of problems were brought to international attention last Saturday: the flawed interface design is admittedly stupid; the human error is unfortunate; and the governor’s alleged lack of leadership in waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Authority to authorize a retraction seems legitimate. But none of those problems are what we ought to be focusing on. In fact, they detract from the real problem and the most important realizations we should all be making in the wake of our brush with nuclear apocalypse. (Hint: making “I survived the 2018 missile false alarm” shirts is not it.)
We all need to reflect upon our responsibilities. How prepared are we personally for survival in a post-nuke Hawaii? Do you have your requisite amount of SPAM and Vienna sausage stored up? Because I certainly don’t.
We are angry at the situation because the failure of the alert system ripped back the curtain for an unwanted glimpse of the ugly reality of the consequences of United States militarism and imperialism that we like to pretend does not exist. As commentator Bart Dame put it, Saturday’s scare forced us all to stare into the face of the very real, very violent, very terrifying way in which weapon systems and political rhetoric have been piled to the sky, just waiting for a spark to blow everything up in one, gigantic fireball.
Yes, the alert was a mistake. But what it exposed is a very real threat that we must address head on. Saturday showed us that we can no longer hide with our heads in the sand—that we must not default to complacency with America’s brutal foreign policy just because the curtain has now been torn away. That kind of normalization is easy to long for because it affords us the confidence that we will never again be accidentally reminded of the serious threats we tolerate.
The governor and Mr. Miyagi remained coolheaded, which is more than I can say for myself. They found the immediate problem and are determined to continue the review and propose appropriate changes. What changes are we going to push for? Instead of demanding a public human sacrifice of “the guy who pushed the wrong button,” what real changes will we collectively demand from our leadership?
As Dr. Martin Luther King quite correctly pointed out, the United States is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” It was true when he said it and it’s still true now. The “madness” of Donald J Trump goading Kim Jong-un is more obvious, but only slightly more insane than the madness which has characterized U.S. foreign and military policy in general since the end of the Second World War, regardless of which political party or personality controls the government at the time. By allowing ourselves to be bought off by the benefits of the military-industrial complex, perhaps especially here in Hawaii, we enable that underlying, institutional and ideological madness to continue.
There is a strong taboo in this state against questioning the heavy military presence here. Our politicians are unwilling to even entertain the idea that an honest cost-benefit analysis might show that the costs of the large military presence here are not worth the supposed benefits; that the benefits that do exist go to a small network of powerful interests, while the costs are borne by all of us; and that it is the very presence of the Pacific Command that makes Pearl Harbor a target now, just as it did in 1941.
The argument is often made that United States’ military might, its spying and surveillance apparati and draconian policing policy—collectively the Security State—is the price we pay for freedom and quality of life in an unstable and brutal world. Politicians parrot the line that America’s defense budget is the only thing separating us from the (usually brown) men, women and children who, daily, are forced to shelter as unmanned kill drones shriek overhead; who, daily, face the threat and contend with the same fear that we faced on Saturday. There are no false alarms for them.
As someone who tempers his idealism with pragmatism (as much as I can stomach), I will admit that there may be times when United States military strength can be a good thing: in opposing the strength of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, for example. But when U.S. strength is used to dominate, to conquer, to become exactly the same kind of danger to world peace that those mid-20th century powers were, U.S. strength becomes a threat to humanity.
Since WWII, the United States’ foreign policy has been geared toward establishing hegemony. Our nation’s mission has been to become the sole superpower in the world and to give our free market capitalism space to run wild and consume resources and trade routes to the detriment of anyone not aligned with our ideology and dominion. To force the rest of the world to fall in line and then act shocked when resistors cling to whatever means of defense they believe they have (like a nuclear weapons program) is the epitome of hubris.
To assume, blindly, that our way is best and to label anyone who resists as enemy (communist, terrorist and everything in-between), deserving of sanctions, containment or invasion—that is our mistake, not theirs. And to expect no consequences is foolish, for that adversarial ethos has painted a target on these islands; it has turned our embassies into war zones, our inner city communities into concentration camps and it has made each and every one of us into a sentinel, guarding against any incursion by a perceived enemy (terrorist, immigrant and everything in-between) that we can never conquer. It has turned us into slaves to the military-industrial machine, and for what? So that we can wake up on a Saturday morning with the doom of a fiery death hanging over us?
Saturday was a wake-up call to all of us that, far from keeping us safe, America’s militarization of the Pacific is the sole reason we are in danger at all.
But that wake-up call must translate into action. That wake-up call must be converted into policy choices and leadership that reflect and encourage a de-escalation of militarism, a dismantling of the colonial and imperial institutions that militarism supports, and a move toward genuine pluralism that fosters cooperation and peace between neighbors. Because that is the only way to guarantee that we never see that alert on our cell phones again.
So rather than calling for Ige’s or Miyagi’s resignation, rather than calling for a strengthening of our military presence in the Pacific, rather than calling for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program while its leaders stare down the loaded barrels of the 62,000 U.S. active-duty troops stationed in Japan and South Korea (to say nothing of the number of U.S. troops in the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii and soon Jeju), let’s call on our own government to begin the process of demilitarization.
It won’t be easy. Getting our politicians to divest from militarism would mean abandoning our plans for global hegemony; it would mean giving up our supposed “top-dog” position on the world geopolitical ladder. But that’s exactly what needs to happen for there to be true and lasting world peace. Only by letting go of our own military grip on the rest of the world will the bombs stop falling; and only by working with other countries as equals and as partners in peace will our chain of islands be free from the threat of nuclear terror.
There is hope in the continued activism of the Hawaiian community, whose leaders have been telling us we need to wake up to the realities of militarism since before the campaign to end bombing on Kahoolawe was conceived. There is hope in the burgeoning network of young, indigenous leaders from around the Pacific who are making connections, forging solidarity, and leading the charge against colonialism. There is hope in the fact that a sitting member of Congress (and a veteran, no less) is actively challenging the dominant military-dependent narrative of this country and this state. There is hope in the fact that less than eight hours after the emergency alert was sent out, community members rallied outside the Federal Building along Ala Moana Boulevard to protest nuclear proliferation and global militarism and to call for peace with North Korea. There is hope in the fact that, today, we can still hug our loved ones and we can share the vital message of demilitarization with our neighbors. We are still here, and we have the opportunity to do something about the situation; to empower ourselves so that we again never feel that hopeless, helpless sense of anguish at the thought of our own doom.
So let’s get to it, because we’ve used up our one freebee. The next time we see that message, it won’t be because some guy in Honolulu made a mistake. It will be because of the longstanding mistake our leaders have made in militarizing the planet.