If you were in Hawaiʻi on January 13th, 2018, you most likely have a story about the nuclear missile alert. If asked, you could probably recount exactly where you were, who you were with, and what you felt or thought (if you indeed felt or thought anything other than numbing dread or disbelief). Since that day, I’ve read and heard many stories, and in a way, I’ve come to realize that we are the stories we’ve lived and told. As First Nations writer Thomas King (2003) once wrote, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are” (p. 2). They reveal, in other words, our inner truths and beliefs, what we think about the lives we’ve lived (or haven’t), and perhaps even where we think we fit in the world.
Facing the possibility of your own death is one thing, but facing the possibility of mass death—with the potential to destroy everyone and everything you know and love in an instant—is another. And what you do in those moments reveals something about who you are. Some panicked, ran, sought cover in bathtubs, behind shelves, or under tables, and prayed. Others got in their cars, driving somewhere—anywhere—in an effort to “get away” perhaps forgetting that you can only drive so far on an island before moving in a circle. I read stories of mothers holding their children wishing they could have had longer lives, cursing the unfair and unjust world we live in. Then I heard of others who sat calmly and alone, smoking their last cigarettes or drinking what could have been their very last cups of coffee. When I received the alarm, I was at home at my parents’ house on the Big Island and I remember being thankful for having traveled away from Oʻahu that weekend: thankful that I would not have had to die alone. (If that reaction does not reveal some of my innermost insecurities and fears, I’m not sure what will. I am that story.)
When news of a false alarm finally reached our phones and televisions, I sat with my nine-year-old nephew who could not comprehend what had happened. In a span of 38 minutes, he had gone from thinking we could all die, to then wondering what a “false alarm” meant. “So, is it going to hit someone else?” he asked innocently, worried that the missile was aimed at another place, where others would feel the same panic and fear that he had. I held his face in my hands, and looked into his eyes full of fright, and tried to explain what had happened. I tried to comfort and calm him knowing that nothing could erase what he had experienced: the very real fear of death.
In the hours and days that followed, I tried to make sense of that morning. And while I am still processing and unpacking the emotions, I know this:
What happened was an act of violence, an act of violence that has been conveniently overshadowed by another story: the story of a man who made a terrible mistake and the failure of anyone to do anything about it for a long 38 minutes.
In the aftermath of the false alarm, more attention has been paid to “the employee who pushed the wrong button” and to the time it took to respond to his error than to the larger context that made (and still makes) this entire situation possible. It may have been a false alarm—and yes, we may have been called a “Tragic Comedy” by North Korea and may have been laughed at, mocked, and ridiculed for our apparent incompetency as a “state”—but all of that simply distracts from the fact that this is our reality!!
“Hawaiʻi is one of the most densely militarized regions under U.S. control, with military controlling 205,925 acres, or roughly 5% of the land. On Oʻahu, the most densely populated island, the military controls 85,718 acres out of 382,148, or 22% of all the land” (Kajihiro, 2000). And I cite all of this cognizant of the fact that the U.S. military controls an even larger percentage of land on Guam and that our Pacific brothers and sisters have had their fair share of threats, alarms, and moments of dread and panic, suffering pains we haven’t experienced. All of this, however, is to say that the overwhelming focus on the “mistake,” and even Trump’s assertion that it was simply a “state thing,” vindicates the United State’s government and the central role it plays in not only creating the conditions of possibility for such a missile threat to be made, but for sustaining and celebrating those conditions as well.
There is a sort of mindlessness that gets perpetuated when we are strategically told, and made to focus on, one particular story. Yes, someone made a mistake: a huge, tragic, horrifying mistake. However, if we do not pause to reflect on the larger structures of power within which that mistake was made then we have accepted the “norm,” or what Hawaiian activist and scholar Haunani-Kay Trask (2004) calls “the natural, everyday presence of the ‘way things are,’” which is deeply tied to maintaining “the strength and resilience of racism” (p. 10). In short, if we keep talking about one individual’s mistake, and if that’s the story we spend all our time thinking about, then we’re missing the point!
So, although I’m still trying to understand it all myself, here’s at least part of that “point”:
The heartbreaking missile alarm made the dangers of militarism in Hawaiʻi real for everyone here, not just those who’ve been calling for demilitarization for decades; not just those who carry signs and write letters of concern and protest to army stations who desecrate land; and not just those who’ve been branded as “anti-American.”
No. This touched everyone.
Regardless of color, age, gender, orientation, religion, or place of origin, if you were here, you felt the impact of that morning, and maybe (even if in the smallest way) you got a real taste of the harsh, bitter truth: here in Hawaiʻi we are a potential target for a reason, a reason that goes far beyond our strategic location in the Pacific, a reason that is tightly bound to racist and colonial notions and attitudes towards indigenous peoples, our lands, and our futures. As the late Teresia Teaiwa (2017) articulates, “Historically, black and native or indigenous bodies have not been treated with much dignity under colonial and imperialist regimes” (p. 3). And in the category of “bodies,” I include the biggest, most wonderfully important body: our brown mother earth beneath us. It is the lack of dignity with which we have been treated, in other words, which makes the mere possibility of the missile threat somehow acceptable. When your lands, your bodies, and your lives have been seen as “less than” or even disposable for generations, then you become conditioned to such treatment. And this makes perpetual acts of violence possible.
Our islands—like those in Micronesia and elsewhere—have experienced the pain and violence of militarism because of our proximity. And when I say this, I am referring to so much more than our geographical location. As Māori scholar, Alice Te Punga Somerville (2017) explains, “in some militarized terms, Pacific proximity to Asia is advantageous; in others, such as weapons testing and tourism, [and, if I may add, nuclear targeting] the value of the Pacific lies in its distance from ‘reality’” (p. 329). In other words, our islands are close enough to “enemy” countries to serve as a strategic military outpost for the United States. At the same time, we are far enough away from the “mainland” that we can be harmed without directly impacting those on the continent: we can not only take the hit but we can also keep that hit somewhat contained, on an island, far away, in the “middle of the sea,” (as we are often characterized). We matter, in other words, but only so much as we can be used to protect and maintain the colonial power.
In the hours after those brutal 38 minutes, I found myself not only sad, but also incredibly angry. I listened to people place blame on the man who pushed the button, as if this “mistake” could be placed on one individual alone. Even my nieces and nephews were quick to direct their anger towards that one person. While his devastaing slip-up is unforgivable, the story of his “epic fail” conveniently distracts attention from the United State’s government. One of my nephews even made comments about North Korea: “Why are they so mean? Why do they want to kill us?” he asked. What he doesn’t yet know is that the same country that claims to “save” him from dangers, or worse, that claims military presence and destruction is for his own good, is the same country that knowingly and purposely used our Pacific neighbors as targets for nuclear testing, leaving generations to suffer the effects of radiation; the same country that bombed our own islands; and the same country that still bombs sacred and significant portions of land not 45 minutes from his home.
What worries me, therefore, is that U.S. military presence in Hawaiʻi has become so normalized for them, and for so many of us, that anger quickly turned to one individual, or to another place and people, rather than to the country we are currently being occupied by and to the so-called “leader” who took far too long to respond to the threat and then responded with little to no emotion at all when he finally did. (As an aside, if his lack of empathy and his refusal to take any responsibility for the situation does not serve as a glaring confirmation of the way Hawaiʻi has been seen, used, and abused, then I don’t know what will.)
Normalization, however, does not begin and end in this story. A few months ago, my nine-year-old nephew came home with a bag of “goodies” from school. He was given a lanyard, a pencil, and other little knickknacks all printed with the words: “Follow the 3Rs of Explosives Safety. Recognize. Retreat. Report.” The fact that we have to send our children to schools where they are informed and warned about the dangers of unexploded ordnance, not only in their hometown but also in their learning environment, is a tragedy. But, he (like so many others, and like I did at his age) did not question his bag of “goodies.” There was no sense of alarm. Instead, there was, and is, only a quick acceptance of the “way things are”: the sight of tanks driving through town; the sound of explosives in the distance; the shaking houses and trembling hearts at night; and the strong recruitment strategies that begin in elementary school when military personnel come to school campuses, bringing their equipment and vehicles, glorifying war.
This—all of this—is an act of violence, an act of violence against a place and a people deemed just important enough for military strategy and location but not important enough for genuine care. As Brandy Nālani McDougall (2014) presents in her moving poem, “The Second Gift,” violence is so much more than the physical force we often equate it with:
Violence is more than lodging
bullets into our brown or black
bodies, but also burning
sacred valleys, stabbing tunnels
into mountains, damming streams,
dumping poisons into oceans,
overdeveloping ʻāina, bombing
and buying islands…
Violence is what we’re use to…
Violence is believing
you are in the United States
driving on a highway
built over the sacred,
carrying artillery to scorch
the sacred so more sacred lands
can become the United States
through violence. (pp. 251-252)
Borrowing from post-colonial scholar Frantz Fanon, Haunani-Kay Trask (2004) characterizes this as a sort of “peaceful violence” or a kind of oppression that is either hidden from view or is so hypervisible that it is almost invisible (pp. 9-10). Militarism is everywhere and it is precisely its ubiquity that makes it so powerful. When it seeps into everything we know and do, it becomes so commonplace, so much the “norm,” that we stop questioning it. And that is how power is maintained, and perhaps worse, how violence becomes “peaceful” in that it is either no longer truly seen or is forgiven upon impact.
The false nuclear missile alert is a perfect example of this. We may not see it as a violent act because we’ve accepted certain stories: stories of “mistakes,” peppered with the rhetoric of nationalism—served on the side of military discounts, radio “on-this-day-in-military-history” shout-outs, and daily recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance—that support the militarization of our lands and homes, or at least work to maintain it. This is an act of violence, one that kills our faith in ourselves and in the belief that we deserve basic human rights like safety. We’ve been displaced, disposed, and disenfranchised, and perhaps worse, we’ve been made to believe that our marginalized position is critical for the sake of the “nation” (someone else’s nation at that). Thus, we’ve become numb to the violence, holding our pains and hiding our bruises while convincing ourselves that it’s “not that big of a deal.”
I worry when I think about how quickly some have moved on from the missile alarm. It’s been just over a week and already the dominant stories I hear include statements like: “It was just a mistake” or “The ‘state’ is taking measures to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” There’s so much focus on technicalities. But I can’t move on that quickly. A part of me is stubborn and resistant because I believe that if we brush this off as being that simple—the result of one person’s mistake on one tragic day—then we will allow ourselves, time and time again, to be the subjects of violence.
So, instead, I’d rather shift the focus and ask:
What about us?
What about our land?
What about our stories?
The events of January 13th, 2018 have the potential to change the way we view our islands and ourselves. They can be an opportunity to stand up and speak out against the forces that threaten our physical, spiritual, cultural, and emotional existence every single day. They can inspire in us a time of reflection and a time to reacquaint ourselves with what it truly means to be an indigenous warrior, not part of a regime designed to kill en masse but part of a collective dedicated to protecting the earth and the future.
If you’ve already forgotten the nuclear missile alarm, or if you’ve moved on, rethink it. Revisit it and tell your story. Be your story. Be your critical story of resistance and speak your truths. Only then will we begin to fight against the real threat, which is not a false alarm or even some unfortunate “state” employee who made a tragic mistake, but the entire structure of power that made January 13th even possible.
King, T. (2003). The truth about stories. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Kajihiro, K. (2000). Nation under the gun: militarism and resistance in Hawaiʻi. Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, https://www.culturalsurvival.org /publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/nation-under-gun-militarism-and-resistance-hawaii
McDougall, B. (2014). The second gift. In A. Yamashiro & N. Goodyear-Kaʻōpua (Eds.), The value of Hawaiʻi 2: Ancestral roots, oceanic visions (pp. 250-253). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.
Somerville, A. (2017) The great Pacific garbage patch as metaphor: the (American) Pacific you can’t see. In B. Russell Roberts & M. Stephens (Eds.), Archipelagic American Studies. (pp. 320-338). Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Teaiwa, T. (2017). The articulated limb: theorizing indigenous Pacific participation in the military industrial complex. Pacific Dynamics: Journal of Interdisciplinary Research, 1(1), 1-20.
Trask, H.-K. (2004). The color of violence. Social Justice, 31(4), 8-16.