Remember that feeling you had when you were about a half hour from the birth of your first child? Remember the nervous anticipation you felt waiting to watch your son or daughter in their first play or recital or athletic contest?
Recall the fear you might have felt as you huddled in your basement while the tornado warning sirens blared outside.
Now think about the half-hour plus — 38 minutes actually — that the people of Hawaii spent on Jan. 13 waiting, waiting, waiting for their world to come to an end.
“This is no drill.” That’s what the emergency alert message said that morning on radios, televisions and cell phones all over the seven islands that make up the paradise that is Hawaii on most days.
The chilling message also appeared on the “commercial mobile alert” signs that hang over interstate highways and other major arteries, those signs that usually say “buckle up,” or “ten minute delay ahead.”
The entire message that was sent to Hawaiians that Sunday morning said:
BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT
INBOUND TO HAWAII.
SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER.
THIS IS NO DRILL.
As you might expect, people were scared out of their minds. There was news video of dozens of people running to the basement of a downtown Honolulu office building. Another video showed a family taking shelter in an urban storm drain, the kind that lurk under the manhole covers you see in every city’s downtown.
There were traffic jams; cell phone system overloads; “last” messages scribbled or typed to loved ones.
The people thought, one man told NBC News, that “this was it. Our world was coming to an end.”
Thank God it wasn’t, but the panic is easily understood.
It was all a mistake, state officials said about 40 minutes after the alert had been issued. Somebody just pushed the wrong button, and those officials said they realized they’d made a big mistake.
Yet those of us inland, several thousands of miles away from the state that thought it was a missile target, might tend to think that this wasn’t a big deal. And we would be wrong.
It was a very big deal to Pope Francis. The day after the wrong button was pushed, the pope told reporters on his plane headed for Chile that he was “really afraid” of the possibility of nuclear war. The world, he said, stands “at the very limit” of such a catastrophe.
He had been asked if he was concerned about the possibility of such a war, and he noted that the episode in Hawaii illustrated the risk of a mistake that could lead to an unintended nuclear war. It is especially worrisome, he said, now that tension with North Korea has been exacerbated.
“I think we are at the very limit,” he told reporters. “I am really afraid of this. One accident is enough to precipitate things.”
The pope once again emphasized the position of the Catholic Church against the spread of nuclear weapons and their continued existence.
Just last year he quoted from St. John XXIII’s encyclical on peace, “Pacem in Terris,” when he noted that “the stockpiles of armaments which have been built up in various countries must be reduced.”
“Nuclear weapons must be banned” particularly given the risk that a nuclear conflagration could be started by accident. Last November Pope Francis, according to the Catholic News Service, appeared to harden the church’s teaching against nuclear weapons when he said countries shouldn’t stockpile them “even for the purpose of deterrence.”
During the Cold War when the world’s two superpowers armed themselves to high heaven with nukes, the policy that they shared was called MAD — mutually assured destruction. In other words, if one side launched a nuclear attack, so would the other. Mutually assured destruction.
Some would say MAD worked. The United States and the old Soviet Union, didn’t destroy each other and, along with that, the rest of the world. The Soviet Union is gone, but many of its nuclear weapons remain. Russia has some. And the United Kingdom, Israel, France, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea have their own.
So we’re still, as Pope Francis noted, just an accident away from changing the world forever. Until the world-ending weapons are destroyed, we’ll continue living with the possibility of a nuclear accident or nuclear war.
And that is madness.
Record Editor Emeritus