With Trump in the White House boasting about his nuclear button, the world is on knife-edge and events in Hawaii serve as a warning to us all argues Tom Unterrainer
Your phone vibrates. Stirring from sleep, you check the time on the bedside clock. It’s 8.07am. The day is Saturday. The phone vibrates once more, demanding your attention. Bleary eyed, you read the message: ‘Emergency Alert’ runs the headline. As you rub the sleep from your eyes, the clock changes to 8.08am. Half-awake, you read the rest of the message: ‘Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.’
Having already wasted sixty precious seconds – perhaps your last seconds on earth – by 8.09am you have gathered your family into the one space in the apartment without windows: the bathroom. Half-remembering a scene from some apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster, you fill the bath with cold water, thinking ‘who knows how long we’ll be in here? We’ll need something to drink.’ The public address system in your apartment building crackles and a hectoring, robotic voice insists: ‘This is not a drill.’
At 8.10am your youngest child asks, ‘what’s happening?’ Your teenager asks, ‘are we going to die?’ In the frenzied aftermath of reading the alert, you have explained nothing to them. You can’t answer them now because the scenarios running through your brain are too awful to say out loud. Dominating your thoughts is the image of a man with his finger edging towards a big, red button. Just a week before, this man claimed to be a genius. Days later, he wrote off half the planet and its people as a ‘shit hole’. ‘Some genius!’ you mutter as your partner rests their head against the toilet, tears trickling down their cheek. ‘This is not a drill’ barks the robotic voice once again.
‘Ballistic missile. The message says ballistic missile. That’s not the same as a nuclear bomb, is it?’ you think. Your heartbeat steadies. ‘What’s happening?’ asks your youngest, her voice more insistent than before. ‘I think it’s safe to look outside … just me though. You stay safe in here.’ Safe? Safe from what? Safe from the end of the world? You check the time: 8.15am. Looking out the window, the street is mainly deserted. One or two people are wandering around, bewildered. ‘What are they doing? Do they want to die?’ You bang on the window, shouting: ‘don’t you know that this is not a drill?’
Ten minutes after your phone first vibrated, you switch on the television. Humming steadily into life, the screen fills with the same message. ‘Emergency Alert…’ You switch it off and return to the bathroom to await your fate. ‘I don’t think it’s nuclear war’ you reassure your family. ‘Most likely a North Korean missile test.’ ‘What do you mean don’t think it’s a nuclear war? With that monster in the White House, anything could happen’, replies the teenager. ‘It’s not a nuclear war yet!’ she shouts. ‘This is not a drill!’
It took 38 minutes for a follow-up text to reach those huddled in bathrooms, cellars, under the stairs and who knows where else. By 8.45am the population of Hawaii got the message that no, they were not about to come under attack. However, the dimensions of the trauma delivered upon the Hawaiian populace in those 38 minutes is not something that can be easily reckoned. The five words concluding the ‘Emergency Alert’ will be etched onto many souls. The memory of those horrible minutes spent waiting for the worst will be carried to the grave.
What unfolded in Hawaii must have been all the more terrifying because the idea that America is ‘under attack’ is stock-in-trade for the gaggle of extremists currently occupying the West Wing. The voices of those urging caution against over-estimating the missile capabilities and actual intentions of the North Korea government, for example, are not to be found on the likes of Fox News, CNN and the rest. Rather than rational voices the pundits, commentators and ‘think-tank analysts’ who’ve made a career from escalating threats and promoting aggression – and the military budget that goes with it – are an everyday feature. For the worst of them, some form of attack on Hawaii, the island of Guam or a near-miss off the coast of Japan would serve their purposes – and the purposes of the ‘Leader of the Free World’ – quite well.
2017 saw the commemoration of the seventy fifth anniversary of the atomic carnage at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s sixty years since the testing of the Hydrogen Bomb and the founding of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a little over fifty five years since the Cuban Missile Crisis and some forty years or so after the decade-long confrontation over ‘tactical nuclear weapons’ in Europe. 2017 saw the return of high-pitch nuclear tensions, but also witnessed the first signatories to a Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty.
2018 is opening with the United States releasing a Nuclear Posture Review and her President talking openly about ‘usable’ nuclear warheads. The stance of the US on such matters has an immediate impact on the policies of the British government, not only as a consequence of the longstanding Mutual Defence Agreement but because the process of renewing nuclear warheads is already or will soon be underway in this country. If these are not matters of concern for you, you have simply not been paying attention. The time to start is now.
Why now? Because whilst we are told that Britain’s nuclear weapons are merely a ‘deterrent’; whilst some prominent socialist politicians caution against calling for their abolition; whilst some people reassure themselves that such weapons ‘will never be used’, events in Hawaii serve as a warning. In times of heightened tension, irrational aggression, self-serving threats and egoistic approaches to ‘security’, ‘accidents’ such as those delivered upon a cluster of islands in the Pacific could have dire consequences. In such circumstances, huddling in our bathrooms will not save us.
The world is on a knife-edge and it wouldn’t take much for unimaginable horror to let loose. This is not a drill.
Tom Unterrainer is a Director of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation