There’s a story I tell on tours when I show people the tsunami warning sirens around the island of Oahu. They are the big air raid speakers on high poles posted around the island of Oahu. The story goes like this…back when the state first installed the syetem, they did a test siren to see how people reacted. They wanted to see how badly the tsunami evacuation routes were strained by traffic – it turned out that the evacuation routes were remarkably traffic free – the beaches on the other hand were crowded because everyone wanted to see the big waves.
That’s the world we live in. People rush to see the disasters and we are so immunized to the call of danger that we ignore the alarms going off around us, or worse, we do the exact oppossite of what we should be doing when we hear them.
There are alarms going off around us all the time – yes, car and burglar alarms, sirens, and the many alarms of our phones but more than that. There are alarms we should be reacting to – every homeless person is an alarm that there is something wrong with our socieity – I pass dozens every day. Every school shooting, act of road rage, or other act of violence is an alarm that should tell us that our way of life is not working. The drug overdoses, the obesity, the suicides, the despair – all of these things are alarms that most of us simply ignore.
And then there are the real alarms – in the recent hurricanes there were huge numbers of people who chose to ignore evacuation orders. My tsunami siren story isn’t made up…people went out to see the waves. And if you don’t believe me – here are a couple of real examples from my weekend. I took my wife to the Kahala Mall so she could do a little shopping…while she shopped, my daughter and I played games and explored the kids shops…
Right in front of the Fun Factory, an old man in a yellow t-shirt collapsed. Suddenly, there he was on the ground and people walking around him, ignoring him. We were twenty feet away and there were a lot of people between he and us – my first inclination was to run over and help him, but then I had some cold reality thoughts – I didn’t want to freak out my 6-year-old with a dying man, I didn’t know if he was really sick or having a heart attack, my duty was to first of all protect my daughter and keep her safe, he might have a disease like hepatitis, and worst of all – I didn’t want to get sued for not being able to save him if I tried to help him and ended up doing more harm than good – my CPR certification is five years old. Apparently, all of the other people were having the same thoughts because no one moved to help him…and so we moved closer and closer and I tried to figure out what to do but thankfully when we got within about five feet a middle aged woman knelt down next to him and another person ran to get security – and so I fell back into the crowd. If I had gotten there, I’m not sure I would have helped him – so I am thankful that someone else did, thus freeing me of the responsibility of potentially letting a fellow human being die right in front of me. It all happened in the space of a minute or less but what really struck me was how all of those people in the mall were doing the same thing as me, waiting for someone else to take care of it. How’s that for an alarm? How’s that for a metaphor for our dying civilization?
The paramedics and security came. I don’t know more than that. We wandered to a different area of the mall and suddenly the fire alarm was going off. Flashing strobes and high alarm sounds. An automated robotic voice coming out of the speakers every twelve feet “Please remain calm and evacuate to the nearest exit. Do not use the elevators. Move to the nearest exit. This is not a drill.” I looked around and I seemed to be the only person paying attention to it. Other mall shoppers kept going in and out of stores, looking at their phones, sipping their coffee and chatting with one another. They completely ignored it. I thought about mass shootings and tragic fires and people being trampled and put my daughter on my shoulders and walked calmly to the nearest exit looking for signs of fire and listening for gun shots – I heard neither. We went to the car where I was hoping to find my wife – she wasn’t there, the alarm continued, people continued walking into the mall, very few came out. I tried to text or call my wife but she didn’t answer.
We cautiously went to the store we knew she was in and walked inside. She was still shopping. I asked if she had heard the alarm and she said yes and that “No one seemed bothered by it, so I wasn’t either.” I suggested we leave and just then the alarm stopped and a security guards voice came on and said “Attention shoppers, please ignore the false alarm. Repeat, it was a false alarm”
Everyone had ignored it anyway. That’s what we do now. We ignore the alarms and everything works out just fine. At least until it doesn’t.