“I was home with my daughter, my service dog Pono, and Rosie the chinchilla, who belongs to my daughter, Abby. When I read the alarm, I jump out of bed and grab my glasses. I run to Abigail’s room. ‘Get up honey. You have to get up right now. Right now. Grab your pillow. Go to the bathroom. Turn on the tub and run it. Turn it off when it’s full. Sit in the corner. Wait for me. Be brave. I’ll be right there.’ I give her a hug and a kiss and run off.”
I cried reading this. The mental torture inflicted on this family, and everyone in Hawaii for the duration of the false nuclear alarm is just heartbreaking. When I think about experiencing a similar false alarm, I freeze. How can someone know what it’s like to hear such news, yet have no time to process it? I can only imagine it feels like being hit with the realization that your existence is that of a pile of sand and in the minutes that follow, you grasp to hold it tight, only for it to continually fall through your fingers.
The problem goes beyond this particular mistake, though. Deeper than Trump. We all spend every minute of our lives held hostage, facing the threat of total, immediate annihilation. We put it out of our minds most of the time because it is so spectacularly out of our control. But the threat of nuclear winter is forever looming. And it looms regardless of whose finger is on the button, whether it’s Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, George Washington, Albert Einstein, Adam Smith, Aristotle, or Jesus Christ himself.
Most everyone living has been raised with the threat of nuclear destruction looming, though. Nuclear stockpiles big enough to destroy the world ten times over are, in effect, invisible, omnipresent guns to each and every one of our heads. But they are also normalized, invisible, and omnipresent guns. We pretend not to see them and just go along with our lives. That we can all die of hot nuclear death at any moment is the open secret of modern society. Only times like these, when the nuclear flares are especially heated and, of course, people endure actual false alarms, does this fact enter back into our collective psyche and we all admit it to ourselves and each other once again. With this, comes the impossible: grappling with this seemingly ineradicable terror, but also the needed: a communal catharsis that reminds us all we are not insane, that we really can all die hot nuclear death, that it indeed sucks, and that we are not the only ones who occasionally worry about that minor fact.
But even heated flares become normalized, as the generation living during the height of the cold war coped with the omnipresent gun by imagining nuclear war everywhere, by creating a culture totally obsessed with nuclear apocalypse. Small children would play make-believe games in a world where the bomb was dropped. Popular movies used the revelation that we did indeed destroy ourselves through nuclear war as a twist ending. Superheroes all got their powers from nuclear radiation or some such variant. By being everywhere, the threat was nowhere. It was a game. A joke. A twist. A plot-device. In effect, what all these were saying, though, was: it is inevitable.
More recent generations who have grown up after the Cold War enjoyed a collective celebration; a moratorium on social worrying and a rejection of nuclear war from pop culture. Nowadays we have I, Robot not Planet of the Apes. We Robert Downey Jr. not Lou Ferrigno. AI is the new bomb. War on terror profiteers turned half Elon Musk, half Robocop are the new radiation-powered green monsters. My generation grew up caring about totally different things. Nuclear war was nowhere, not even our imaginations.
But it goes deeper than the fear of destruction itself. We could be destroyed many different ways. The fact that a basic feature of modern human society is living with the knowledge that you and everything you’ve ever known can turn to dust in seconds because of some stupid and/or evil decision on the part of a fellow human being, and not just because of some meteor or other natural disaster, comes with a crippling anxiety about the human predicament that belongs only in depressing, dystopian literature.
It’s not just the fact that we could all die at any moment, but the fact that we live in such a society where the utterly mad situation could have just been avoided and wasn’t. That it was us who unbalanced the scale of human curiosity and responsibility. At least the dinos, and every other species to suffer extinction level events, had the cosmic privilege of not destroying themselves. Humans strive for more, apparently. For us, it would be a blemish on our greatness, an insult to our pride to die, not from our own amazing hands, but from small and petty nature. If we can’t conquer death, hell..we will kill ourselves before giving the universe that satisfaction.
Of course, most people don’t want to commit species-suicide out of spite, but our collective failure to realize no one is pure enough to have a “blow up the world just in case” button has had the inevitable result of a few select people getting those buttons and lording them over the rest of us, subjecting all of humanity to a torture no other life we know of has endured.
I hope we one day look back on nuclear stockpiling like we do the institution of slavery or the divine right of kings: an unbelievable moral abomination and insult to the inherent dignity of every human being subject to it that should never have been able to arise in the first place and is of the utmost priority that it never does again.