For 38 horrifying minutes, residents and visitors in Hawaii thought they were going to die in a nuclear attack. People scrambled for cover, piled into shelters and basements, texted loved ones, and pondered how quickly life can end in a nuclear confrontation.
The nuclear arms race is no joke—its utility as a military threat lies in the fact that no one on the planet wants it to happen. That’s why U.S. administrations for decades have been working diligently on denuclearization through diplomacy. It’s the only way to reduce the number of nuclear arsenals in the world.
Once it became clear that Saturday’s ballistic missile warning—sent out in a blast alert to cellphones, television, and radio—was a mistake, fear and panic on the islands turned to a need for answers—and leadership.
The answers came quickly. As CNN, reported, human error had “turned the island paradise upside down.” Hawaii Gov. David Ige said “an employee pushed the wrong button” during a routine test of the Emergency Alert System and the Wireless Emergency Alert during a shift change. Hi-EMA Administrator Vern Miyagi said changes to the alert system protocol would be made so that this never happens again, including requiring two people, instead of one, to send tests and actual missile alerts, NBC reported. A cancellation protocol would be added that could function within seconds, Miyagi said.
The mistaken attack alert was a sobering moment for the entire nation to ponder. Mistakes involving potential nuclear attacks have happened in the past, but they rarely reach the public in real time. In these moments, citizens must be able to trust in political leadership, not only because they’re seeking answers, but also to reassure them that calm, level heads will prevail. Our survival depends on it.
While all of this was going on, the president of the United States and commander–in–chief of the armed forces was playing golf at his own resort in West Palm Beach, FL. The false alert went out at 1:09 p.m. EST. According to HuffPost, citing press pool reports, President Donald Trump didn’t leave for his Mar-a-Lago estate until 1:38 p.m. Had an actual ballistic missile attack occurred, the missiles already would have struck Hawaii’s 1.4 million residents just 20 minutes after they were launched.
To be clear, according to news reports, it appears that advisers alerted Trump to the crisis, telling him that military leaders had no evidence that any missiles actually were in the air. Nevertheless, as of this writing on Sunday morning, the president has yet to address the incident and its aftermath, either in a news conference or via his favorite format, Twitter.
One of the only presidential statements we have came from a White House spokeswoman, who erroneously said the incident had been a “state exercise.”
In the 21 hours after the scare, as of this writing, the president has been highly active on Twitter. He has criticized Democrats over DACA, retweeted a misleading attack on Sen. Dick Durbin by a Pizzagate conspiracy theorist, shared another tweet about Hillary Clinton’s emails, complained about “Fake News” and author Michael Wolff’s tell–all book Fire and Fury, and retweeted a quote from Fox and Friends praising himself for the economy.
But nothing about Hawaii’s harrowing 38 minutes.
Some observers believe this is actually a good thing. Keeping President Trump distracted on the golf course during a potential nuclear crisis might actually be the best strategy, given his penchant for belligerent knee–jerk reactions.
“Thank God the President was playing golf,” tweeted former Pentagon communications director Patrick Granfield.
Maybe keeping him out of the action when it really matters does indeed help keep us safe. But oh, how far we have fallen.