Last Saturday’s false nuclear alert in Hawaii does this for us: It offers a unique window on what you and I will feel like if it ever really happens. To us.
Jeff Jackson, who lives on Haleakala Mountain on Maui, and his mother, Mary Nell Jackson, who lives in the Dallas area, both believed it was real. They said a day afterward that living through the 38 minutes before the alert was called off was like no other experience in life.
Jeff said, “I took it absolutely seriously, absolutely seriously.”
She said, “For one split second, I thought this couldn’t be real. It had to be a joke. And then he never quit speaking in this low, hushed tone, and I knew that it was no joke.”
At 8:10 a.m. Saturday, Hawaii Emergency Management, a state agency, blasted an alert to all cellphones in its reach: “Ballistic missile threat, inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”
Jeff, 54, a professor at the University of Hawaii, said, “I was just kind of finishing up making some pancakes, and I got an alert on the phone. The first thing I experienced was just a complete drop. I felt like my internal organs went to jelly. I never experienced anything like that before.”
He is an internationally known mountain climber. “I have had many scary experiences,” he said. “But this was different.”
He said the feeling he experienced was not fear for his life. “I was prepared to die. I have lived a good life,” he said. His feelings in that moment were driven entirely by the fact that his two sons were at his side, waiting hungrily for pancakes.
“That kind of drop and helpless feeling that I had, what that was about was just having two little boys, 7 and 10, two innocent little boys standing there right next to me," he said. "That kind of parental desire to protect these young souls was the thing that was devastating. It was devastating.
“I immediately just gathered them up and took a few breaths, knowing that in a few minutes we might just be in the midst of a white flash and be annihilated. It was incredible.”
Then he went into action. “I started filling up the bathtubs with water," he said, "started filling up a lot of the jugs in the house with water and getting water together, closing all the windows.
“We have no shelters. [The alert] said, ‘Immediately take shelter,’ but we don’t have that setup in Haleakala, Hawaii. We live in a household where the windows are open.
“In a flash, I just speculated as to what a scenario might be like, figuring that a missile was probably incoming to Honolulu and just no knowledge, complete ignorance as to whether we would be immediately wiped out in whatever they call it, the blast zone, or whether we would be subject to a drifting radioactive cloud.
“And then just playing through the scenario of what was going to follow, just great grief, huge feeling of grief and loss and what was going to happen to the rest of the world, South Korea, Japan, North Korea, the mainland U.S. and all the aftereffects of terrible nuclear disaster. All that sort of washed over me in an instant, really.”
Jackson describes himself as “very apolitical.” But he said he was sure his reaction to the alert was powerfully influenced by events in this country and the world in the preceding months.
“It seemed surreal,” he said, “but, you know, we’ve got this president making inflammatory remarks, and there’s this saber-rattling going on, and we know that the North Korean regime is also militaristic, and the leader is portrayed as insane.
“If Obama or even Bush before him had been in office, I would have had more of a modicum of doubt in my mind about the reality of this. But, of course, because of heightened tensions, because of the unstable nature of the leaders, both in the United States and North Korea, it was at the forefront of my mind.”
His mother is a well-known authority on gardening and cooking with herbs in North Texas. His father, Frank Jackson, is a famous criminal attorney. He called his wife, both parents and his brother in New York. His mother took the call as a final goodbye.
“He was speaking in a low, shocky voice, and I do think he was protecting the boys," she said. "It just came out, that hushed tone just came out, the fear and terror, what is coming, what is happening next.
“The way he delivered what he was saying made it even more real. He didn’t blurt it out. He wasn’t hysterical. He and I both felt like that was the last — it could be the last time we told each other we loved each other. It was just terrifying.”
She found an immediate frame of reference for final phone calls from loved ones before a terrible death by disaster. “When I hung up, all I could think about was the twin towers. I just thought, ‘Oh, God, did I say the right thing?’” she said.
Jeff reached for a reference, too. “The only thing I could compare it to would be if you are being held at gunpoint in your own home, and at any moment it’s virtually guaranteed that you are going to be killed,” he said.
But even that grisly comparison didn’t quite capture it, he said, because of that intervening single factor — the boys. His wife was in Colorado making a professional presentation. He was alone with his sons and mother-in-law. No matter how horrific or final the threat felt to him as an individual, the presence of the boys and their grandmother forced him to take action.
“The entire scenario was thinking about, ‘How do we survive this? What do I do to give us the best chances, even if we’re not within that blast zone, then afterwards?’ Close the windows, fill up the bathtubs, think about what canned food we have, going through all this stuff in my mind,” he said.
And while he scrambled through the house trying to make preparations, trying to reach loved ones on the phone, he said, every moment was dominated by one overarching feeling. “My heart was breaking, breaking.”
Last week, a contributor to The New York Times op-ed page suggested that, in Trump’s bluster-war with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, his crazy-seeming bigger-button tweets have been brilliantly strategic. The writer compared Trump’s tweets to things President Ronald Reagan said and did in office that may also have seemed unhinged. The writer’s idea was that a foreign foe will be more careful if he thinks the American president is crazy.
In yesterday’s New York Times, Max Fisher laid out in brilliant detail exactly how that worked in 1983. The Soviets that year shot down a Korean airliner bound from Anchorage, Alaska, to Seoul, South Korea, killing all 269 on board because they mistook the commercial passenger plane for an invading spy plane.
In the weeks that followed, as Fisher carefully recounts, the fate of humankind teetered on a knife’s edge. Soviet and American fingers hovered over their competing, hair-trigger, nuclear first-strike buttons. In at least one instance, dangerous miscalculations occurred on both sides because Reagan failed to read his own briefing memos from the CIA and was, frankly, if not truly unhinged then at least loosely hinged.
And, sure, that can be a strategy. Maybe if there is something notably wrong mentally with leaders on both ends of a nuclear showdown, each will fear the other may be even crazier than he is, and therefore both will be afraid to push the button. That’s one way to do the calculation.
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But we can’t do that calculation properly without stopping to imagine what it will be like for us if the calculation goes wrong. What will it feel like — really — to hear that we and our loved ones are about to be immolated? It’s an easy speculation to avoid, for obvious reasons. Who wants to think about it? And how could we possibly know?
Ah, but we can know. We do know. Jeff Jackson and his mother are only two of the hundreds of thousands of people in Hawaii and the rest of the nation who now know exactly what it feels like to believe that the calculation has gone wrong.
And they do not know it in an abstract sense. Jeff knows exactly what it’s like to be making pancakes for his 7- and 10-year-old sons, realize suddenly that he and they may die in moments in a nuclear blast zone, look down on their innocent faces, and also know that he may be helpless to save or defend them.
I’m not offering this narrative as a hard guide to nuclear defense strategy. I know and you know that it’s harder than that, more difficult, more complex. I am only suggesting that when you and I think about this, when we make our personal calculations for the right thing to do, the right way to go, we should take a moment to consider how we will feel when it turns out we were wrong.