Forum — From the October 2017 issue

Haleiwa, Hawaii

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When people in Hawaii first learned of North Korea’s latest threat — that it might soon launch a preemptive strike that could obliterate our lovely islands with a nuclear bomb as powerful as those that wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki — it was news for a few days. Older people mumbled about Pearl Harbor. Then we islanders went back to the issues that really concern us: the terrible traffic, the chronic homeless problem, the unfunded Honolulu Rail Transit project, the cost of gas, and the surf report — not necessarily in that order. “How often do you go to the States?” tourists sometimes ask, to the great annoyance of people here, which though very distant from the mainland is no stranger to the mainland’s woes.

The ominous news continued to come, though. Because North Korea is a habitual blunderer, the missile might veer off course and miss the islands. If it did we would still be subjected to a catastrophic electromagnetic pulse, which would short-circuit our communications systems, satellites, microwaves, TV sets, and everything else that runs on electricity. This actually happened before, on July 9, 1962, when a 1.4 megaton American bomb was detonated over Johnston Atoll and Hawaii’s electricity fizzled out for a day or so. But even the possibility of that cauchemardesque event did not get much attention.

North Korea is roughly 4,700 miles from Hawaii. (Funnily enough, Washington, D.C., is about the same distance.) But the homeless problem is much closer, mainly on Oahu, where I live — forty encampments on iconic Diamond Head alone, tents and sidewalk shacks lining Nimitz Highway, visible to tourists coming from the airport. A large proportion of the residents are local. “We are not homeless, we are houseless,” one ragged man explained to me. Some are originally from the mainland, but many are Micronesians driven from the radioactive islands and toxic atolls we blighted with bomb tests in the Forties and Fifties, living like refugees in the parks and under the bridges.

And then there’s the Honolulu rail project, which broke ground in 2011. Parts of it exist as the palpable fragment of a good idea, but it will soon run out of money. The state legislature cannot come up with the billions needed to finish it. So there it remains, stark and incomplete, a ghostly, disconnected viaduct suspended over the traffic jams and bungaloid neighborhoods. (Speaking of those bungalows, Hawaii has the highest housing prices of any state in the nation.)

Oahu is the most urbanized of the seven inhabited islands, and the most populous: Of the roughly 1.5 million people in the state, almost 1 million live here. The other islands are distinct, each with its own peculiar conceits and anxieties. Maui is touristy; Kauai a model of civic planning and resistance to developers; Lanai a pineapple plantation transformed into a resort destination, almost owned entirely by the multibillionaire Larry Ellison. Molokai is largely ranchland; the Big Island is roomy and diverse, and, with active volcanoes still spewing lava, it is getting bigger; tiny Niihau is privately owned by the Robinson family and culturally native Hawaiian. All these islands have different priorities, but they are united in their love of hula and high school sports, and their ardent provincialism.

It’s odd that Hawaii is provincial, because it is dense with military bases and home to nearly 50,000 military personnel. You’d think such warriors would be our link with international conflict, with Asia, with Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places, because soldiers have tales to tell. But they keep their heads down. Their spouses are visible at the beach with their small children, parents sitting out the latest tour, praying for it to end.

During last year’s presidential election, some Trump signs appeared, yet Hillary took Hawaii. But so what? We are at such a remove that the presidential election is already decided by the time our votes are counted. The mainland is distant and we are for the most part overlooked, isolated in the precise meaning of the word: islanders. We take the traditional Chinese view, “The sky is high and the emperor is far away.” In spite of the high cost of living, smugness and a sunny disposition predominate, and until we are woken by a North Korean missile strike, most people will go on repeating the local mantra, “Lucky we live Hawaii.”

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is the author of more than fifty books, including, most recently, Mother Land (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). His story “Our Raccoon Year” appeared in the May 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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