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Dec. 7, 1941, is remembered as “a date which will live in infamy” for the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor.
Will Jan. 13, 2018, be recalled by future generations for the mass psychological damage inflicted upon an entire state during the unpoetically labeled “false missile alert”?
There were no sunken ships. No dead soldiers. No smoke in the air. But conspicuous signs of pain and devastation were strewn throughout our community in the aftermath nonetheless.
Think about this: At no other time in our country’s highly militant history have this many Americans perceived themselves as this close to imminent and indiscriminate annihilation. Just because wounds and scars from that moment aren’t visible now doesn’t mean they aren’t real or lasting.
Local (and national) journalists dutifully covered this “false missile alert” from many angles and often with great doggedness and skill. They gathered some fascinating stories but missed, in my mind, the story.
The story here really is not procedural in tone, or about the emergency management system in Hawaii, or even the person who “pushed the button.” It’s about a needlessly heightened state of military fear across the land in which so many people in one place simultaneously were told death is coming, deal with it.
Most of our meaningful experiences today are mediated in some way, by the news, entertainment or social media. Our sensory data primarily consists of media messages. Therefore, media is the air, water and land of our intellect. So when a trusted channel of information distributes a most dire warning, with a short countdown clock embedded, we really are being struck by a ballistic missile.
On this recent sunny and otherwise exceedingly pleasant Saturday morning in Manoa, my wife’s iPhone buzzed at 8:07 a.m. as we were preparing breakfast for our three young daughters. She picked up the phone, nonchalantly, and I suddenly witnessed humanity’s extinction through her face, shudder, convulsion, flail and frantic scream.
The impact of such an event is not trivial or procedural for any of us. It was not just a “false alarm.”
Whether a nuclear missile actually was whizzing toward Hawaii at high speed, leaving us less than 15 minutes before impact, really isn’t the point here; because in that moment, it was happening. It definitely was happening, per the all-caps message: “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
We were going to die, likely in the most ghastly and dehumanizing ways, and so was every single person around us. When I looked into the faces of my innocent and kind and utterly horrified young daughters, I felt a searing anger toward every person in any way ever involved in the escalation of war or even the threat of war, including creation and peddling of all weapons of war.
I will never forget – or forgive – that moment.
In our housing complex, some people had received the alert and others hadn’t. We were in a frantic state, looking for our cats, loading our car, pounding on our neighbors’ doors, filling water bottles, picking a place to shelter.
As we sped past the neighborhood Starbucks – quickly flipping through radio stations with nothing but inconsequential canned music on them – I could see faces of people, blissfully unaware, walking their dogs, enjoying cups of coffee, probably wondering why some people around them were in such a rush on such a glorious morning.
We decided to shelter at the University of Hawaii’s main campus, where we wrongfully assumed an orderly action plan would be in place. Instead, we encountered hordes of terrified people – mostly students, other people’s children – sprinting from building to building in packs of dozens. Some of them were crying and convulsing and trembling. Many of them appeared startled and panicked.
We gathered with others in a large room of one of the open buildings, and a neighbor’s kindergartener innocently remarked, “I like my school, and I don’t want anyone to blow it up.”
After an intense 38 minutes of living under this cloud of despondence, we finally received news that the alert was false. We returned home, without a scratch on us, but significantly changed as people.
Our kids went back into the common area to play, only this time they practiced escape drills. In addition to packing their lunches for school the following Monday, our neighborhood’s kids also put together emergency kits to keep nearby at all times. My youngest daughter and her friends played out elaborate scenarios in which their tiny animal figurines suffered through a nuclear attack but then also had to survive the apocalypse afterward. In their game, they told us, “It was the real thing.”
Local and national journalists collected all sorts of these types of accounts, too, of individuals and in collections, even in minute-by-minute diary form. A child was coaxed into a storm drain. A man had a heart attack after calling his 10-year-old daughter to say goodbye. A local priest delivered a mass rite of absolution.
Within each channel, these types of stories provided just a sliver of the scope of the situation. But when you compile all of these scarring memories, from all of the channels, into one large library of experiences, and then read, listen and watch them all together, the scope of the chaos rises to a much different magnitude than any single story or news organization can convey.
For my part, I’m collecting as many of these as I can through an academic survey and related research study, and you’re welcome to participate.
While frightened people here (and their family and friends around the country) recovered from this shock in isolation from the rest of the nation, the president, the man ultimately responsible for our national security, continued his carefree game of golf, had dinner, made a Tweet about “fake news,” and so on, for more than five hours before mentioning the situation, only to fully cast blame for it on Hawaii.
Imagine if this alert had been broadcast nationwide, and people outside of Hawaii had suffered through this anguish. Would so many pundits and message-board commenters glibly blow it all off as a “false alarm” mistake by a single “button pusher” and focus on the mechanics of Hawaii’s civic incompetence? Or would they instead personalize it, and mobilize because of it, demanding a return to normalcy and world peace?
I’m thankful I was with all of my children at this time, and my wife, so we could focus on surviving together rather than making horrific choices about which child to find and how. I coincidentally had assigned John Hersey’s journalistic masterpiece “Hiroshima” as a class reading just days before the missile alert, and I’ve spent a lot of time afterward thinking about those ordinary people that Hersey describes in the piece, surviving an incomprehensible ordeal, perpetrated by the only country in the world to ever deploy an atomic bomb on other human beings.
That was us, remember?
My wife’s father lived on Oahu in 1941; he was 7. While his father fought for the U.S. Navy in the Pearl Harbor attacks, his memory of the events as a child generally are hazy and non-specific, except for one thing. He recalls the air-raid drills at his elementary school in detail, especially how he was trained over and over about how to react to the sirens.
He can still picture the route and the procedures and the place where he was supposed to drop and hope for the best. His family quickly was evacuated after Dec. 7. Those drills pretty much are all he remembers about his time in Hawaii.
Hearing those sirens and performing those drills were his participation in the fighting, just as our young children probably will remember Jan. 13, 2018, for the rest of their lives.
The impact of such an event is not trivial or procedural for any of us. It was not just a “false alarm.” In that moment, we were going to die. We had just a few minutes to live. The threat was real, and so is the idea now that one person somewhere on this planet can indiscriminately kill us all just by pushing one proverbial “button.”
Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.