On Saturday morning, people in Hawaii awoke to emergency alerts on their phones. ballistic missile threat inbound to hawaii. seek immediate shelter. this is not a drill.
There was no incoming missile. But it took the authorities 38 minutes to send another message alerting people that it was a false alarm. Before that, people were relying on Twitter for information. Some hid in their bathrooms, some went to public spaces, others just huddled where they were. Families called each other to say goodbye.
Those 38 minutes of terror reflect only a tiny fraction of the emotional trauma caused by nuclear weapons. These weapons have a legacy of anguish, pain, and suffering. From the horror experienced by the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, to the torment of those whose lands and waters nuclear weapons were tested upon in the ensuing decades, to the fear of the entire world held in the grip of possible nuclear annihilation, these weapons have scarred our global community. They will scar us further if we allow this situation to continue—until they kill us.
The sentiment expressed by many Hawaiians in the days following was that they had no idea where to go or what to do. They were not prepared for nuclear war. How could they be? There really is no way to prepare for a nuclear blast, nor for the radioactive fallout. Shelters, iodine pills, or duck-and-cover routines can only get you so far. If multiple nuclear weapons are exchanged, all of the preparation could can dream of would not be sufficient.
We are also not emotionally prepared. From the 1950s to the ’80s, the threat of nuclear war was part of our cultural experience. Films, books, and television programs exposed the risks and the possible consequences of the nuclear arms race. Activism against the bomb was at an all-time high: In 1982, 1 million people marched in Central Park to demand nuclear disarmament. Today, most people rarely think about nuclear weapons. With “fire and fury” back in the headlines, this may be changing, but we are still largely in collective denial about the risks.
We have been taught that these weapons are not meant to be used. We are taught that they protect us from conflict, war, and further nuclear proliferation. This lethal myth is based on the premise that in order to maintain international peace and security, we need certain countries to wield the capacity to slaughter civilians, incinerate cities, and destroy the entire planet. We believe that nuclear war will never happen, that nuclear weapons prevent it.