Magazine | February 5, 2018, Issue

Gimme Shelter

The Hawaiian False Alarm was a perfect example of how things fit a certain template these days.

Stage One: This was Trump’s fault, because he exacerbated — to use a word he couldn’t spell — tensions with North Korea, and thus everyone in Hawaii is nervous. Well, here’s the history of U.S.–Nork discussions.

U.S.: You shouldn’t build nuclear weapons.

North Korea: Go to special bad hell, Uncle Sam! Give us something.

U.S.: Here’s food and oil. We get to put cameras in your facilities, okay?

North Korea: Give us chocolate, foul ape of the land between two waters. Also, many cans black spray paint to us! For justice and sake of honor!

U.S.: Okay, but why?

North Korea: You go away for four years now. (Gets paint, sprays the lens of the cameras.)

Repeat and repeat until they have rockets that say Made from 100 Percent Fresh Squeezed Juche on the side (painted over the original Chinese or Farsi words). Then they test some more nukes and threaten hot death from the sky, and we’re the ones being provocative because Trump makes a button-brag?

So maybe some people should reserve a dram of pique for everyone who let everything get to this point.

Stage Two: Point out the details of Stage One on Twitter, as many Trump critics did, and get lambasted for literally normalizing Hitler.

Stage Three: Blame Trump for not reassuring Hawaiians that everything was okay, as if that would have settled nerves:

Have seen on Fox and Friends report of ballistic missile. Not true, but Crooked Hillary sold Rocket Man uranium? Investigate!

That tweet would have been defended as the way real men in Wisconsin bars talk about erroneous missile warnings.

Stage Four: Write worrisome essays about how this cuts right to our new national nervousness, the revived sense of nuclear dread. Surely the Union of Concerned Scientists is moving the hands of the Doomsday Clock to 11:59! Yeah, well, the Union of Scientists Who Don’t Give a Rat’s Patootie has moved them to 4:20 p.m., because they lived through the Cold War and have some perspective.

This wasn’t the first time some clock-puncher sent the Holy Bleepin’ Bleep code and unstrung a million sphincters. It happened before, in 1971, and I was there. Saturday morning, you got up early to eat a bowl of sugar and watch cartoons. They played Bugs Bunny first, just to remind you what the genre could accomplish, then ruined your life with shows like The Hair Bear Bunch and Sloth Detective and Friends or something.

Well. At 7:12 Colorado time, the National Emergency Warning Center at Cheyenne Mountain sent out the weekly Emergency Broadcast Test. A rote little act that reminded everyone that there would be, at some point, a high tone announcing the end of the world, and even though you lived in Fargo, you’d probably die.

This was the message the stations received.




And so on. I was 13, so if I did suffer the utter loss of authority over my GI tract, at least I wasn’t wearing footie jammies. Those were for kids. I was a teen! And now it was time to die. Or get sick from fallout, which we understood to be “snow that made you throw up and lose your hair.”

I wish I had sufficiently shady journalistic ethics to tell you what it was like, but I only remember that it happened. For years, I told the story without really knowing if it had, but the arrival of the Internet let me research it. YouTube has radio-station airchecks from confused announcers struggling with this whole end-of-the-world thing. There weren’t any sirens. Shouldn’t there be sirens before we die? Shouldn’t there be guys with white helmets with CD badges getting everyone to the basement where they kept the crackers and water?

If “HATEFULNESS” seems a bit too on-the-nose for the code word, the stand-down signal was even worse: “IMPISH.” Once that word was flashed, the crisis was over, and we could get back to The Funky Turtle Detectives or whatever garbage Hanna-Barbera had served up that season.

So it’s happened before. The difference between now and then, if you’re of a certain age, is this: During the Cold War, we didn’t think it was a matter of if. It was a matter of when. It seemed unlikely Ivan would think, “They are lulled into complacency by watching the antics of a sarcastic rabbit — we must strike now, while they are distracted by the products of their decadence!” We feared that something would go wrong, a small thing would escalate, and before you knew it: The world’s over before you got the chance to kiss a girl.

Living under that possibility colors the way you grow up and look at the world, and when the USSR went out of business, it was like learning that some maniac who’d stalked you for decades had been hit by a bus. Today? No comparison.

Stage Five: Identity politics. Someone tweeted out an admonition to stop calling people in the 50th state “Hawaiians,” since that term applied only to indigenous Polynesians. Oh, criminy. Book ’em, Dan-o.

Stage Six: The bureaucratic aftermath. The guy who sent out the wrong message, you learned, wasn’t fired. He was reassigned. Perhaps to Public Relations. As in, going door-to-door to every dwelling in Hawaii and saying: “It was me. I’m so sorry.”

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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