Hawaii at War

Hawaii was in the middle of nowhere but Hawaii was America and so, post Boston bombing, it was on edge. "We're at war," the bus driver said, pulling up at the police line. That morning a bomb scare had emptied downtown Honolulu; now a suspicious package outside the Royal Hawaiian Centre had police cordoning off four blocks. On CNN Piers Morgan told the FBI, "Someone's dropped the ball on security," and Republican senators were debating an outrage: the surviving Boston bomber had been read his Miranda rights, and would answer no further questions without a lawyer. He should have been treated as an enemy combatant, questioned without a lawyer, had his wounds poked, his painkillers withheld. America was in no mood for acting nice. Piers Morgan's eyes narrowed. "In fact," he said, "someone has dropped two massive balls."

Beautiful Hawaii: it's where you used to stop to refuel on the way to L.A. and Europe, Honolulu a smeared blur through glass, tropical, fragrant, steamy and always left behind, just flashes of colour as the plane banked over the mountains and away. How pretty and vulnerable it must have looked to the Japanese pilots on December 7th 1941 as they flew over Pearl Harbour with their murderous payload. That morning in 1941 the incoming Japanese planes made a large, sinister blip on Hawaiian radar, but the lieutenant in charge dropped a massive ball on security, blithely telling his men the signal must be American supply planes flying in. Now Pearl Harbour, still a large and active military base, has tight security for its memorial to the destroyed USS Arizona, where the bodies of nine hundred men lie, and a brisk trade in mementoes: Pearl Harbour key rings, hats, trinkets, baseballs, and American flags.

In the seventies, the bus driver said, many native Hawaiians had shops at Waikiki. Now it's all hotels and designer shops; it's Gucci and Prada and Armani, and no Hawaiian shopkeeper can afford the rent. The Ala Wai Canal forms a kind of demarcation line – it's the American gap between rich and poor. In beautiful Waikiki, presentable locals work in shops and hotels and tourist companies; beyond the Ala Wai canal it's possible to get the impression that every third person is disabled or unwell, or homeless. "We do have a homelessness problem," the bus driver smiled, "but what a beautiful place to dwell outside!" There they were in the lovely, tropical park, pushing their shopping trolleys, gibbering, rummaging through bins. Strolling past Gucci in Waikiki, you sometimes glimpse one of them slinking down an alley, like an unwelcome insect or rat, needing to be herded back over the canal.

In the middle of the night, a siren wailed. An electronic voice said, "Emergency. Please evacuate your room." Plodding down the stairwell in a slow line of refugees there was a moment of claustrophobia, and this was only sixteen floors. Walking down from the Twin Towers after the planes – imagine what that was like. In the morning, Waikiki woke to a fresh emergency. Near Nobu, President Obama's favourite fusion restaurant, a fire hydrant lay on its side, and a geyser of water fifty feet high was rapidly flooding shops. Thoughts and prayers were with the first responders, who waded into the extraordinary torrent and couldn't turn off the flow. Two policemen were listening to a puzzling story from the bus driver who'd run into the hydrant. "An undercover cop made me do it," he said. "He opened his jacket and showed me a tiny silver badge. Then he waved me forward. Into the hydrant." Someone had dropped another ball; perhaps Hawaii was at war with itself.

I went back to looking at the soldiers. It's a military place, full of crew cuts, muscle, necks grizzled by desert sun and warlike tattoos: skulls, daggers, guns, US flags. Tough guys lounged in the pool, sporting US Army shorts and mirror shades. On a Hawaiian beach, looking at the body art all over the nice Moms and Dads, it's possible to feel you really don't have enough tattoos. Awash with machismo and weapons, Hawaii has a fitting sideline in shooting ranges: down a dingy alley, up a graffiti-covered staircase, was a gallery run by two individuals called Manu and Dave. Emerging from the scarred plywood door Manu growled, "Who's the shooter?" Here you could fire an Uzi, a Glock, an AK 47, an M16, while an armed thug stood behind you to make sure you didn't run amok. There was the Stars and Stripes on the wall, the frightening crack of gunfire, there were the limping wrecks from beyond the canal, lining up to ask Manu for work handing out flyers to tourists. Outside, the palm trees swayed in the soft breeze and Hawaii was radiant after a shower of rain.

 First published in Metro Magazine NZ April 2013