Something extraordinarily frightening and stupid happened in Hawaii on the morning of Saturday, Jan. 13. A few minutes after 8am, the state Emergency Management Agency (EMA) sent out an alert to everyone’s phones saying a missile was inbound to Hawaii. For 38 minutes, that alert hung in the air like a guillotine blade–the rope had been freed, and we were all just waiting for the slice. News organizations and officials like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard started posting updates that it was all a mistake five to 10 minutes after the initial alert, but by that point huge numbers of people–residents and tourists–were already terrified.
I was relatively fortunate during the scare, because my phone was on silent and in another room when the first alert came through. By the time I checked my phone, news had already reached Twitter stating that the alert was bogus (though I did experience a frantic 30 seconds or so while I scrolled through my feed looking for confirmation of the alert). Ironically, I had been playing the video game Fallout 4 at the time the alert came through, a game that literally begins with a family relaxing on a weekend morning when they hear that all-out nuclear war has broken out.
Others had to deal with tears and uncertainty and mind-numbing fear that will probably stay with them the rest of their lives. Even 10 minutes can be a hellish eternity if you have a child who suddenly thinks his or her entire world will turn into fire at any moment.
The actual alert was unambiguous and terrifying: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” But as I read those words, yelling at me in all-caps, I couldn’t help but notice that the doomsday sirens hadn’t gone off. That made no sense to me, which is why I immediately checked social media (a text from a friend sent around the same time as the alert asking me if I’d also gotten it only added to my urgency). But for many who don’t use social media, their only recourse was to check the radio or television, where they either saw the alert broadcast again or regular broadcasting–neither of which was reassuring.
It took EMA officials an agonizing 38 minutes to send out a second phone alert saying the whole thing was an error. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair Ajit Pai angrily denounced that the next day.
“The false emergency alert sent yesterday in Hawaii was absolutely unacceptable,” FCC Chair Ajit Pai said in a Jan. 14 statement. “It caused a wave of panic across the state worsened by the 38-minute delay before a correction alert was issued. Moreover, false alerts undermine public confidence in the alerting system and thus reduce their effectiveness during real emergencies.” Pai added that, “Based on the information we have collected so far, it appears that the government of Hawaii did not have reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent the transmission of a false alert.”
Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki was angry, too.
“This system we have been told to rely upon failed and failed miserably today,” he said in a statement released shortly after the false alert was countermanded. “I am deeply troubled by this misstep that could have had dire consequences. Measures must be taken to avoid further incidents that caused wholesale alarm and chaos today. Clearly, government agencies are not prepared and lack the capacity to deal with emergency situations. Apparently, the wrong button was pushed and it took over 30 minutes for a correction to be announced. Parents and children panicked during those 30 minutes. The Hawaii House of Representatives will immediately investigate what happened and there will be consequences. This cannot happen again.”
And Rep. Kaniela Ing, D–South Maui, was furious. “Hospital patients were moved,” he tweeted not long after the alert was cancelled. “My friend’s mom called her crying saying goodbye. My other friend was huddled downstairs with her toddlers. This is not ok.”
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What happened in Hawaii on the morning of Saturday, Jan. 13 was a disaster. A huge portion of the state became utterly terrified that their lives were about to end in extreme violence. Their fear was real, and the actions they took during those minutes between the alert and their discovery that the whole thing was an error were often heartbreaking.
“I made the bed for some inexplicable reason, trying to act normal,” one person said on social media shortly after the erroneous alert was cancelled. Another, who had just arrived on Maui, was dumbstruck. “[I] realized I had no idea where [the] shelter is,” she said. “[I] Tweeted goodbye to friends and family on the Mainland. The news had NOTHING while it was going on. Was going to get in bed with my boyfriend to wait for the end, like in Rogue One.”
But as all this was taking place–as I was reading news stories and tweets and Facebook posts from Maui residents who were clearly still shaking from the alert–I kept thinking how stupid it all was–how it’s madness that a mistake like this is even possible. We truly live in an Age of Stupid, and we can’t take two steps before being reminded of it. The mindless Tide Pod Challenge makes for amusing reading, but is there a more perfect analogy for our times? We live in an Age of Stupid because there’s no value in being intelligent.
You only had to watch a few minutes of the Saturday afternoon press conference with Governor David Ige (who for some reason is running for re-election this November) and EMA Administrator Vern Miyagi (who back in August inexplicably agreed with a CNN reporter’s suggestion that people who found themselves on a beach during an alert could hide in caves). Both men made clear that, although they were really “sorry” about the “error,” they wouldn’t fire anyone who was involved in it (Miyagi did tell everyone that “the guy” who made the error “feels terrible about it”).
“Today is a day our community will never forget,” Ige said at the press conference. “I know first-hand how today’s false alarm affected all of us here in Hawaii, and I am sorry for the pain and confusion it caused. I, too, am extremely upset about this and am doing everything I can do to immediately improve our emergency management systems, procedures and staffing.” He later added that “We have already taken action to ensure this doesn’t happen again” though he didn’t explain what that would entail.
Miyagi then said he would “take responsibility” for the false alert. “This is my team,” he said at the press conference. “We made a mistake.”
Neither man inspired much confidence. Neither seemed to grasp that many people experienced truly horrifying moments (especially if they had children), and how angry we all got after news that it was all a false alarm started to spread. They didn’t elaborate on how exactly they changed the procedures for sending out test alerts and real alerts, and refused to answer reporters’ questions about who exactly made the error, saying it was a “personnel matter.” Even more alarming, neither Ige nor Miyagi could explain why many people in Hawaii didn’t receive either the initial alert or its cancellation notice, though they said they’d look into it.
There were so few details on how the false alert was sent and how they were going to make sure it never happens again that it would have calmed many nerves if Miyagi had just grabbed the microphone and said that he ordered his deputy to put tape over the death button.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that the error happened in a “routine internal test during a shift change,” but that doesn’t really tell us anything. Follow-up reporting by Honolulu Civil Beat and The Washington Post revealed that extremely poor alert system design–not mere operator error–probably played the biggest role in the catastrophe. The employee who triggered the alert was apparently faced with a dropdown menu of options like “PACOM (CDW) – STATE ONLY” and “DRILL – PACOM (CDW) -STATE ONLY;” the employee reportedly chose the first one instead of the second one. There was also a two-step authentication requirement to send the alert, but that doesn’t seem to have made any difference (two days after the false alert, Ige appointed Brigadier General Kenneth Hara to carry out a “comprehensive review” of the state’s emergency management procedures).
And I haven’t even gotten to the fact that Hawaii Tourism Authority President George Szigeti also spoke at the Jan. 13 press conference. “Hawaii is open for business,” he said, answering a question no one in the entire state had asked. Later that day he issued the following statement: “We have been in contact with our tourism stakeholders to inform them of today’s false alert and reassure them that Hawaii’s safety and security is unaffected by today’s unfortunate incident. There is no cause for travelers with trips already booked to Hawaii or considering a vacation in the islands to change their plans. Hawaii continues to be the safest, cleanest and most welcoming travel destination in the world and the alarm created today by the false alert does not change that at all.”
Feel better now?
For their part, Maui County officials have been largely silent on the fiasco. Indeed, in the 24 hours immediately following the false alert, I received just one statement from a county official. It was a press release from County Communication Director Rod Antone that quoted–wait for it–Rod Antone.
“This appears to be a mistake, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from this, and we should,” Antone quoted himself saying in his own press release. “Remember that if this attack had been real, people should ‘get inside, stay inside and stay informed.’ What this means is that if you’re out shopping, stay in the store; if you’re at home stay at home. Don’t go driving anywhere. Turn on the radio or television and listen to the news.”
I know language like this is an attempt to be helpful, but it’s not optimal. The phone alert is designed to give Hawaii residents 15 minutes warning to take shelter. This is a questionable gesture, since there are few, if any, proper nuclear bomb shelters in the state. Nonetheless, state officials say that anyone who hears the alert needs to immediately “shelter in place”–a euphemism that basically means huddle inside a building, away from glass, and hope for the best (officials also recommend “sheltering in place” for 14 days).
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Seriously, all this is stupid. The new alert sirens (which did not go off Saturday morning) are stupid. The fact that an alert gives us a mere 15 minutes to “find shelter” is stupid. The whole fear that North Korea is on the verge of nuking us is doubly stupid, especially given the fact that Hawaii itself is conquered territory and that over the last two decades, the U.S. has been responsible for raining more fire and iron onto people around the world than anyone else. Then you’ve got the outrageous bluster that President Donald Trump regularly spews against North Korea, arrogantly threatening them with nuclear annihilation.
And for those of you who say you were never worried because our missile defense systems would have shot down any incoming rockets–forget it. Even after decades and tens of billions of dollars, missile defense in the U.S. is, at best, a question mark. At worst, it’s a flimsy sham that will fall apart at the first sign of trouble.
“The United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars developing, testing, and fielding ballistic-missile-defense systems over the past few decades,” Fred Kaplan wrote in this Oct. 17, 2017 Slate article. “But in tests, these systems hit their target only about 50 to 60 percent of the time. And even this record exaggerates how they would likely perform in an actual conflict. In the tests, everyone involved knows ahead of time when, where, and at what angle the missile will be launched. Also, with only a couple of exceptions, the tests have aimed an interceptor against just a single target–whereas, in a real war, the attacker would almost certainly fire a volley of missiles. The real attack might even happen at night, whereas all of the tests have been conducted in daytime.”
Of course, this entire debate is stupid, useless and insulting, especially given the fact that–and this is the best part–North Korea does not right now have the capability of launching a nuclear missile at the U.S. The Secretary of Defense himself said this publicly not even a month ago.
“North Korea’s November ICBM ‘has not yet shown to be a capable threat against us right now,’” Secretary of Defense James Mattis said during an off-camera briefing with reporters at the Pentagon, according to this Dec. 16, 2017 CNN report.
And what Mattis was saying wasn’t even new. It’s been reported a lot. Wanting a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile and testing one are not the same thing as deploying one. Sure, the North Korean regime is trying to field one as fast as they can–who wouldn’t given all the times Trump has threatened them with extinction?–but that doesn’t mean they have one right now that can reduce Hawaii to ashes.
The Jan. 13 alert was a mistake, but the Age of Stupid we all live in is very real and every bit as scary. The mistaken assumption of a missile launch can all too quickly end up provoking a real all-out strike. We’ve known this danger since the U.S. began building missiles, which by their very nature are not recallable. Indeed, President John Kennedy was reportedly so afraid of an accident precipitating war that he constantly referenced Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, which detailed the miscalculations that led to World War I, in his discussions with his military commanders. The Jan. 9 report in The Guardian that the Trump Administration wants to develop new, more “usable” nuclear weapons only adds to the danger.
We’re all in this mess because nothing substantial has changed since the Cold War. We say the Soviet Union is gone and we’ve gotten rid of many nuclear weapons, but we still hold more than enough to burn the entire world many times over. What’s more, we–the richest and most powerful nation in history–still regularly bomb the poorest nations into rubble and threaten others with nuclear fire.
We do all this in large part because we’ve forgotten how not to do it. We long ago became what our folklore always told us we’re against–a giant war machine that exists solely to protect access to the capital and raw materials we need to sustain ourselves. And so we lie to ourselves about our actions around the world, which is beyond stupid.
We don’t have to succumb to this Age of Stupid, of course, but we don’t seem to be doing anything to end it.
Cover photo: Gaspard/Flickr
Cover design: Darris Hurst