Just a thought… I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. [Martin Luther King Jr.??]
Imagine this: you wake up on Saturday morning in an island paradise. Perhaps the waves are crashing outside the sliding glass doors on your rented vacation condo. Maybe you live there and are grateful to see the mountains and palm trees within view of your bedroom window every day. Then an alarm goes off on your phone.
This weekend, up to 1.5 million Americans thought that their lives were about to end. For 38 excruciating, terrorizing minutes, thanks to an automatically sent warning, this came up on people’s phones. In their homes. In their beds. On the beach. In restaurants. Imagine the terror.
Just one year ago, you might have shrugged it off, saying to yourself that it was likely that someone had inadvertently sent out a message that was meant to be a test. After all, that kind of thing happens by accident. In 2015, a behind-the-scenes dry run of how the BBC would handle the passing of Britain’s monarch resulted in an apology, after one of its reporters mistakenly tweeted that Queen Elizabeth II had passed away. So, you know, when human beings are involved, things can go sideways.
But it’s the context of this story, the ramped-up tension that we’ve been feeling now for almost exactly a year, that made this text and its possible veracity so terrifying. Today, there are two madmen – two that we know of, two that rave aloud – who are threatening each other with their nuclear weapons. One claims to have a bigger button. The fact that the leader of North Korea has been waving his little missiles around for years now is not as disconcerting as the fact that the so-called most powerful man in the free world has taken to tweeting threats and insults and provocations to inflame an already tense situation.
This insanity is why people were putting their children into storm drains or huddling in their bathtubs or trying to book airline tickets or phoning loved ones in tears or rushing to be with their families for their last hours on earth together. This is why what is being sold as a simple screw-up by a staffer at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency pitched one-and-a-half million island residents (and countless more tourists) into utter panic for 38 minutes on the Saturday of a long weekend. Because we’re in a climate where we all know it actually could happen, the same way so many of our parents felt during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
More recently, in 1983, the world came close to nuclear destruction once again and you may not even have heard the story, or the name Stanislav Petrov. He’s known by many as The Man Who Saved the World. It was less than a month after the Soviets had shot down KAL Flight 007. Petrov was monitoring a nuclear early-warning system when a satellite report came in that the US had launched a nuclear missile with five more to follow.
Petrov judged the reports to be a false alarm (he felt an attack would be full-out, not a trickle), he ran a bunch of checks and balances through his civilian-trained brain and decided not to alert highers-up to the possible attack. In so doing, he likely prevented a nuclear retaliation on the US and its NATO allies. Why was he on my mind?
Saturday, January 13th could have seen a massive scale disaster, except for two things: one, of course, it was a text sent in error as part of an internal drill at shift change. But secondly: had the so-called Commander in Chief been at a desk, in his bed, anywhere but on the golf course for those crucial minutes, would his hands have found that big button? Would his hot head and desire to move the news focus from stories of his philandering, mental instability, racism and, oh yes, collusion with Russia, just possibly have made launching the world into nuclear war the answer to his problems?
Now, you may have faith that there are saner minds and stabler hands in control of the nuclear codes – and trust me, I would love to have that faith – but I think it’s pretty safe to say that we can all be very grateful to Trump for spending yet another day on his golf course at Mar-a-LOCO on Saturday.
And by the way, there was not one word of comfort or leadership directed towards Hawaii or the rest of the nation that is shaking its collective head. Trump’s first tweet on Saturday came hours after he’d finished his 18 holes and had been fully briefed on the error that occurred on that beautiful stretch of islands in the South Pacific. It was about the Fire and Fury book and about his oft-bleated lament of fake news. Because, when it all comes down to it, that’s all he cares about: Donald J. Trump. Who is our Petrov? Who will save our world?