Waking Up to An Incoming Ballistic Missile

A digital road sign from a few hours after the first alert//Jack Slater

Saturday, yesterday, my wife ran into the house a few minutes after 8 AM  and shook me awake with the news that a ballistic missile was incoming towards our home. She had received the alert via the emergency system on every smartphone. We didn’t know why my phone hadn’t sounded the alarm (my wife says I am a “very sound sleeper”) as far as I can tell, it was set to do so.

Here was the text of the actual alert:

BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

Anyone who was watching TV also got this message:

My wife sheltered with our son, who was still sleeping, in the bathtub at the center of the house. I shut the windows and the doors, knocked on our neighbors door to try and make sure they knew, wished I had bought more supplies before the incoming attack, and then joined my family in the bathroom, hoping for the best. That it was a false alarm, that it would miss or be deflected, that we would at least survive the initial blast and then find some way to survive whatever payload the missile delivered. We weren’t really prepared for either nuclear or biological possibilities.

The alert didn’t specify which island was destined to receive the missile. We’re on Oahu, which you would assume would be the target because it has military installations.

We were lucky to find out via our senators, and the emergency management agency that it was a false alarm:

Even after finding out that it was a false alarm, I was terrified. What if this had been a sensor malfunction, and the same malfunctioning message had reached our national embarrassment of a president and convinced him that it warranted an immediate nuclear response? There was no way to tell what he would do, he’s been antagonizing other nuclear powers and  bragging about the size of his “Nuclear Button” like a five-year-old.

About 45 minutes after I woke up, the emergency management agency finally got a message out via the original alert mechanism and confirmed the false alarm:

Adam Nagourney, David E. Sanger, and Johanna Barr for The New York Times:

The false alert was a stark reminder of what happens when the old realities of the nuclear age collide with the speed — and the potential for error — inherent in the internet age. The alert came at one of the worst possible moments — when tension with North Korea has been at one of the highest points in decades, and when Mr. Kim’s government has promised more missile tests and threatened an atmospheric nuclear test.

During the Cold War there were many false alarms. William J. Perry, the defense secretary during the Clinton administration, recalled in his memoir, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink,” a moment in 1979 when, as an under secretary of defense, he was awakened by a watch officer who reported that his computer system was showing 200 intercontinental ballistic missiles headed to the United States. “For one heart-stopping second I thought my worst nuclear nightmare had come true,” Mr. Perry wrote.

It turned out that a training tape had been mistakenly inserted into an early-warning system computer. No one woke up the president. But Mr. Perry went on to speculate what might have happened if such a warning had come “during the Cuban Missile Crisis or a Mideast war?”

The governor has apologized for the mistake, which turned out to be caused by bad UX in a drop-down menu. The best response our president had was to take a break, hours later, from golfing and go off the rails about a book that exposed his administration’s incompetence and internal distrust of his judgement. The rest of his administration was completely unprepared according to this article from Eliana Johnson:

A false warning of a missile threat in Hawaii sent White House aides scrambling Saturday, frantically phoning agencies to determine a response and triggering worries about their preparedness almost a year into the Trump administration.

President Donald Trump’s Cabinet has yet to test formal plans for how to respond to a domestic missile attack, according to a senior administration official. John Kelly, while serving as secretary of Homeland Security through last July, planned to conduct the exercise. But he left his post to become White House chief of staff before it was conducted, and acting Secretary Elaine Duke never carried it out.

Philip Bump for The Washington Post:

Consider his responses. First that statement, which has one obvious aim: To assure the American people that it wasn’t his fault that the false alert went out — it was Hawaii’s. Then, that tweet, which shows what was preoccupying the president at the moment. Not that one of the 50 states had been briefly wracked with terror after a mistake was made by the people whose job it is to keep them safe. Instead, an insistence to the American people that the media is “fake news,” which was probably a response to the reports that trickled out bolstering a story from the Wall Street Journal that Trump had allegedly paid hush money to a porn star with whom he’d had an affair.

That was the thing that Trump urgently wanted to clear up: The media couldn’t be trusted when it reported on him.

Trump could have tweeted as soon as possible that the alert was a false alarm, sharing that information with millions of Americans immediately. He could have additionally shared information about what went wrong, and assured people that he would work to make sure that no such error happened again in the future. He could, at the very least, have sought to offer some emotional support to the people of Hawaii. He did none of these. He has, as of writing, done none of these.

[…]

It’s also hard to imagine that Trump didn’t make the situation more stressful in another way. His constant prodding of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has dramatically increased the sense that a missile might actually be launched at Hawaii from that nation. During the past 12 months, we’ve learned a lot more about what North Korea can do, and we’ve heard experts describe Trump’s response as exacerbating, not lessening, the possibility of conflict.

The result is that there was actually one message Trump sent to Hawaiians on Saturday.

You’re on your own.

Author: Jack Slater

A Philadelphian exiled to Hawaii. You can follow or contact me on Twitter where I'm @TimeDoctor, via the contact page, or via e-mail to zjs AT zacharyjackslater dot com More here.

Leave a Reply