When Contemplating Your Doom Becomes Part of Your Daily Routine
TLDR: Today sat in my kid's school parking lot, mentally preparing to get my kids home just in case we were under a nuclear attack because Mr. Orange Julius is an awful leader and I never had to deal with this shit before. So take care of yourselves.
I hesitate sharing this because I consider this moment extremely personal and private, but realize so many of us are having anxieties like this and I think we need to acknowledge how much the political climate as of late is running down our batteries, sapping our strength, and triggering really dark moments.
Today, I happened to glance at Twitter, at the exact moment when tweets popped up through all the #JoeArpaio and #HurricaneHarvey tweets that claimed North Korea had just launched a missile. The tweets were seconds old. I navigated to the "Latest" tab on Twitter's search feature and typed in "North Korea" and started hitting refresh to see what popped up. At first, it was individual's accounts, then the Defense Ministry of Japan, then a few news smaller news agencies all confirming North Korea had launched "something."
I know intellectually Kim Jong-un is mostly flexing his muscle. I know he is agitating the US because he wants to appear fearless and ready to strike under the assumption that if the US fears his preemptive strike, we will be disinclined to remove him from power. I know most North Korean missiles fall far short of their intended target and land impotently in the sea. I know building a nuclear bomb is hard and building one which is small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile is much harder (I assume) and also building a missile guidance system to deliver such a bomb to the target and not have it explode on your launchpad is all VERY difficult. And, I know all this is, for the time being, apparently beyond the technical capabilities of the North Koreans. I know all of these things intellectually; stress on, "apparently," and, "for the time being."
What also occurred to me in a terrifyingly more visceral way, while I refreshed my Twitter feed every few seconds, is if this was the time when the North Koreans did miniaturize their nuclear bomb to the point where it would fit on a missile and this just happened to be the time when the missile guidance systems were fully operational and this just happened to be the time when Kim Jong-un decides to let one fly, if I happen to be looking at Twitter at the exact moment, the tweets, the news, my view of it as it happened, wouldn't look substantially different.
I think we may all misremember our reaction to the morning the planes hit the Twin Towers. If I'm being honest with myself, it didn't hit me right away. As I woke up, it wasn't like I already had some premonition before I clicked on the TV. It was a live feed panning the New York City skyline which is, in and of itself, not really newsworthy. In a moment, the same panoramic could have cut to Al Roker doing the weather. However, there was smoke coming out of a Trade Center building, which was less comforting, but easily explained away as a routine fire. Then a newscaster informed the audience that a plane had hit it. I was instantly reminded of the plot of one episode of that X Files spin-off, The Lone Gunmen, where they foil a similar plot; but I quickly dismissed that as implausible. It must have been a single engine plane off-course, some Wall Street weekend warrior out of his depth (Recall that before 9/11, small aircraft hitting tall buildings was actually embarrassingly frequent. FAA revised flight patterns afterward and it happens less now.) Not until the second plane hit minutes later did it collectively dawn on me and the nation at large that this wasn't an accident. In a moment, we reconfigured our hive memory to re-establish the import of footage we had been watching in the previous minutes. All of a sudden, what had seemed mundane and disjointed became reorganized in our memory. We reframed the moment we recall today when asked, "Do you remember what you were doing when the planes hit the towers?"
If and when Kim Jong-un decides to really deploy a nuclear weapon aimed at the United States, the news will be unconfirmed at first, a tweet here and there, various governmental agencies admitting "something" just happened and then in the moment when we'd expect his previously empty metal tubes to fall into the sea...they won't. They'll just keep going, to wherever they are guided, or wherever they might fall. Nearly 300 million people will stare dumbly into their phones, as I stared into mine, as a nuke races across the Pacific.
This is all because there is a man in office who does not think before he speaks and has the same grasp on international diplomacy that I have on dieting. It did not help that at nearly the same moment Korean missiles were in the air, Trump just happened to be getting on a helicopter to fly out of DC to Camp David. Suspicious. I digress.
I realized how ever I reacted to this news, being on the vanguard of the Twitter refresh, is how I'd react during the real thing. I quickly took stock of my family: my wife was on a plane flying into LAX; there was nothing I could do for her. My two oldest girls were home, and my youngest kids were at school. I drove into the school parking lot and waited there and refreshed Twitter looking for any more news of these missiles, still in the air. I wanted to be proactive, but not act out of proportion. Sitting in the parking lot seemed like a good half measure at the time.
Ten minutes in, there were all sorts of main stream organizations chiming in about the North Korean missiles, but no word as to their fate. I know it'd take about twenty minutes for a missile launched from the Korean peninsula to reach the West Coast of the United States. I figured the initial reports of the missile launch were three minutes behind, I stood staring at my phone tapping refresh like a chimp for two minutes, and then drove to my kid's school in two which means I had twelve or thirteen left if this was it.
Within my assumed twelve minutes, as soon as I could get one mainstream US based governmental or news organization to confirm that real missiles were actually heading to the US Mainland, I'd walk into the school, demand they release my children, punch whomever I had to punch to make that happen and get them home. My neighborhood is close enough to a naval base, if loud sirens were raised there, I'd hear them and that would be good enough for me.
This was my plan: Get my kids home. Hold them close until it happened or didn't. It's not much of a plan, but it's the only plan I had. Yes, it sounds like a nightmare because that's what a nuclear attack is. Didn't you read After The Bomb as an 80's kid? I did; a lot, and the sequel, After the Bomb-Week One. And watched "The Day After?" It seems like the asshats who are egging Donnyboy on to provoke the North Koreans have no capacity to grasp the unfathomable human suffering and ecological destruction that comes with the deployment of just one nuclear bomb. They are only concerned that a nuclear device is a show of power. They have forgotten that it is also a horror show.
I sat in the parking lot of the school for five minutes like a goddamn maniac refreshing Twitter before reports confirmed that the North Korean missiles had fallen into the Sea of Japan. I drove home.
Let's state the obvious. If I explained to anyone inquiring why I was sitting in the school parking lot at the time, I'd have probably made the news. I know how this whole calculation sounds to anyone just trying to get on with their day but I don't think my concern was unwarranted. If you were to take any random day after August 9, 1945, until today, I'd say there was an extremely low probability a nuclear bomb is going to explode overhead (a certain 13 day period in 1962 excepted, sure, but averaged that over 26,315 days.) Because of the particular man in the Oval Office now and the growing capacities of the adversaries that we face now and the complexities of the North Korean nuclear standoff, I'd say those probabilities have raised significantly in the last few months. Consider that in the last few weeks, Trump's aggressive rhetoric has raised them even more. On a day when Trump is distracted by a hurricane and hunting for a way to make the press forget that he is a racist dipshit, pile on the fact that the DPRK has actual missiles flying through the air. I'd say that is a legitimate spike in the probability of a nuclear bomb falling from the sky and ruining beautiful Southern California. More likely than most other days for sure. My mental calculation was that I am risking almost nothing to be prepared (I lost about ten minutes of cleaning my garage) and if I'm wrong, I just go back to cleaning the garage. But if I'm right, I get to see my children before we became a smoldering pile of convenient justifications for Trump to dismantle the co-equal branches of government in order to seize unfettered war powers.
I need to remind myself over and over again, I'm not crazy; things are really as bad as they seem; I'm not unjustified at being utterly outraged at the embarrassment that is this president. We need to admit that most of us are at the whim of very powerful people and beyond our vote and our voice, we have very little influence over the circumstances that govern our fate. We can scream into Twitter, or into cake, or hold signs in the street, or punch a Nazi or two, and all of those things make us feel better but we know that honestly, no one is listening and I'm convinced our current leadership simply do not care what we think and are frankly unconcerned about our welfare. I'm not saying we should disengage, no, in fact, we need more engagement because Trump proves that we need to be extra careful about who we hand power to in this country because the institutions of our democracy are pretty concrete and do not easily yield.
Anyone can probably assume what side of the political spectrum I come from, and you can read into this whatever you'd like, but my main point is that we need to acknowledge that the impact of all this upheaval on our person is real, and the daily ups and downs of this shitshow weigh on us mightily. We can't pretend like it doesn't take a toll on our well being and sanity. Today for 15 minutes I had to weigh the very real probability of my family perishing in a nuclear explosion, however unlikely, and that is not a thing you just brush off and get on with your day. I hate that so much of myself is wrapped up in this. Trying to strike a balance between paying attention and staying grounded is a massive, but necessary endeavor.
Take care of yourselves, people. Give yourself some breathing room, remember there still other things in the world you care about and allow yourself the time and mental space to engage in them. Remind yourself what you used to do with your time and energy when you only devoted a reasonable amount of time to worry about politics. Hold your loved ones close every chance you get. We still need you in the streets, fighting the good fight, but we need you whole.
Oh, yeah, and fuck Trump.