What would you do if you learned that there was a missile strike incoming toward your home? If you thought that you were going to die? If you thought that your friends and family were going to die?
That is the question that faced over a million people in Hawaii when they received the following emergency alert earlier this month: “Ballistic Missile Threat Inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”
Since Hawaii is still on the map and the country hasn’t been suddenly thrust into war, we can safely assume that it was a mistake. But it took a full 38 minutes for officials to send another similar alert stating it was a false alarm.
A lot can happen in 38 minutes.
People tried to catch flights off the island. People hid in garages, in bathtubs, in closets. People called their loved ones. People prayed.
It was 38 minutes of terror, of texting, of truth-seeking. Officials tried to reassure people online that it was a false alarm, but the panic did not truly die down until that second alert went out.
First and foremost: Human error happens. This was a mistake. A terrible one, but a mistake nonetheless. State officials in Hawaii have rightfully taken the blame, promising discussions of how to prevent future false alarms. They have acknowledged their error wholeheartedly, and have pledged to make amends.
The part that strikes me as irresponsible is the response that federal officials took. Or rather, the lack thereof.
President Donald Trump was golfing when the initial warning went out. He was briefed on the situation at some point within three hours of the alert. And five hours after the message, he issued his first statement (via Twitter, naturally).
But it was not a statement about Hawaii. No, it was just like most of his other tweets: An attack on “fake news,” a reaffirmation of his position of power. No reassurances, no acknowledgement—nothing.
Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe I should just leave him be, since he wasn’t directly involved in any of the action.
But over a million citizens in the country he leads were terrified for 38 minutes. And a lot of these citizens’ fear is a direct result of their distrust for Trump, stemming from his behavior towards North Korea online.
The takeaway from this incident is that President Trump does not seem to notice the impact of his words and actions. Sure, more than a million people hid in buildings, called their loved ones and confessed their secrets because they thought that the idea of death via missile was plausible and imminent. But no, we can’t get mad at Trump for that—it was entirely Hawaii’s fault! For once, he isn’t the one to blame.
Trump has bred an atmosphere of fear. The entire reason the missile alert was able to happen—an employee pressing the real missile alert button instead of the drill one—is because Hawaii reinstated its Cold War-era nuclear alert system amidst rising fears of North Korean attacks. And in an age where the president plays nuclear chicken with an unchecked dictator via Twitter, it is getting increasingly harder for the average citizen to discredit the possibility of war coming to our home.
You can argue that North Korea was already amping up their nuclear stockpile without foreign powers egging them on. But you cannot argue that Trump name-calling North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on social media discouraged them from developing more weaponry.
In the Trump administration, diplomacy and foreign relations no longer happen solely behind closed doors. They’re out there on the Internet, for everyone to see. And what we have seen thus far from the president is not promising. His statements read more like a boast than a warning: “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
Until Trump realizes that tossing around childish insults via Twitter is not the way to de-escalate a growing nuclear threat, that his words online have weight, America will continue to regress into Cold War-esque fears of impending nuclear warfare.
And we’ll just keep waiting for that one time where it isn’t a drill.
Sarah Taekman is a second-year student studying origins.