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Hawaii’s missile scare “reminds us how precarious the nuclear age is”

Saturday’s emergency alert underscores how on edge we are about nuclear conflict.

False alarm emergency alert for Hawaii.
False alarm emergency alert for Hawaii.
Alison Teal/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Last week’s news cycle began with a gossipy new Trump book, shifted to the president saying he doesn’t want immigrants from places he deems “shithole countries,” and was capped off by a salacious story about the president’s payoff to a former porn star. And then on Saturday, a false alarm about a missile heading toward Hawaii brought the stakes of the Trump presidency sharply into focus. According to Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, the mistaken alert shows just how precarious the current state of the world is.

Panic ensued in Hawaii for about 40 minutes on Saturday, after a false emergency alert notice was issued: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” was apparently sent to thousands of people’s mobile phones, and an alert also appeared on television. It was a false alarm — Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency quickly tweeted that there was no missile threat to the state, although it took 38 minutes before a second emergency alert was sent saying that there was no danger.

Redlener told me yesterday’s panic was bad, but it could have been much worse. The false alarm says a lot regarding the potential for nuclear war — especially in light of President Donald Trump’s escalating war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “Everything is on hair trigger, so any possible mistake is very unsettling, to say the least,” Redlener said. “It reminds us how precarious the nuclear age is on so many levels, and it’s really unsettling.”

Hawaiian authorities have said that the alert was a matter of human error. “It was a mistake during a standard procedure at the change over of a shift, and an employee pushed the wrong button,” Hawaii Governor David Ige told CNN on Saturday. While obviously disturbing, Redlener said that’s a better scenario than the alternative: a radar tech glitch, which could have triggered a counterattack.

“When I first heard about a false alarm with the initial news that there might be a missile attack on Hawaii, I immediately was concerned that this was a tech glitch or radar detection error,” Redlener said. “That was one of the big fears during the Cold War, that radar technology might signal that we’re under attack and immediately launch a counter-attack.”

If that were the case, the United States might have accidentally launched a retaliation, “which would have been a horrendous, unfortunate disaster, because we would have started a nuclear confrontation that would have been difficult to stop once it got started,” Redlener said. Although, he cautioned that there’s a lot of redundancy in the military radar system; a counterattack can’t be launched with an “oops” push of a button, unlike, apparently, an emergency alert.

Redlener wasn’t alone in noting the risks exemplified by Saturday’s false alarm. Kingston Reif, an analyst with the Arms Control Association, said on Twitter that the incident is “a reminder of the big risks we continue to run by relying on nuclear deterrence/prompt launch nuclear posture,” adding that while nuclear deterrence is preferable to preventive war, it’s not risk free.

A New York Times story pointed to a 1983 near-miss between the United States and the Soviet Union when Soviets shot down a Korean airliner after mistaking it for an American spy plane. Mutual distrust between the US and the Soviet Union nearly resulted in war, even as it became increasingly obvious the initial incident had been a mistake:

Each read the other’s blundering and dissembling as intentional, deepening suspicions among hard-liners that the other side was laying the groundwork for war. And if war was coming, the logic of nuclear deterrence all but required firing first.

Per White House pool reports, President Trump was on a golf course when the alert was sent — not, for example, watching cable news coverage of the alert or scrolling through Twitter. Many people missed the entire event as it unfolded: It was a Saturday on what is for many a three-day weekend. People aren’t at work or tuned into the news; global markets are closed.

“The fact that these processes failed so epically that caused this trauma, that caused this terror all across the state of Hawaii must be fixed immediately. And those responsible for this happening need to be held accountable, making sure that this cannot, it cannot happen again,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) said in an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union with Jake Tapper on Sunday. She also echoed concerns that such mistakes could bring us to the “brink of nuclear war.”

There remain many questions to be answered about what happened on Saturday in Hawaii, and more details will likely come in the days and weeks ahead. Hawaiian officials told the Times that a new procedure has been implemented requiring two people to sign off before an alert like Saturday’s is sent, and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency released a timeline of events surrounding the alert.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said his agency is launching a full investigation into the incident.

But beyond what happened, Saturday’s false alarm is a stark reminder of the times we live in. “It just underscores how precarious we are in terms of potential for nuclear confrontation,” Redlener said.

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