Monday, January 15, 2018

A Missile Alert and Civil Angst

The missiles were coming. The broadcast text and television message was clear enough. “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” I saw the message echoed on Twitter and decided the missiles didn’t exist. It was all a mistake, though that was easy for me to say. I was nowhere near Hawaii.

But then, despite the distance, I grew worried when half an hour went by and no definitive correction or clarification came in. Finally, confirmation came in that the alert was the mistake that it appeared to be. Ironically, this news came to me by way of CBC News in Canada. Their contacts in Ottawa may have had reliable information sooner than the American news media trying to get in touch with officials in Washington.

If this was an unsettling episode for me, I learned it was far worse for people in Hawaii. Take shelter — what does that mean if the hazard is a ballistic missile? I heard stories of people sitting on the floor in the garage or getting in the car and heading for the hills. Some fraction of a million people were convinced they were going to die. The roughly 38 minutes they waited must have seemed like a month. Some reported a feeling of isolation and helplessness. It was hard to know what was happening or where anyone else was. There probably wasn’t enough time to respond anyway.

With this as a backdrop, the official response, when it did arrive, was anything but reassuring. The indifference and inaction were striking. The Pentagon never issued a statement. The President learned of the crisis but did not want to interrupt his golf game. The civil defense authorities in Hawaii realized they had issued a false alert within four minutes but took an additional 34 minutes to figure out how to issue a correction. Later the White House issued a statement that appeared to say that missile defense was “a state issue,” a stark contradiction to long-held U.S. policies on national defense. I saw bot accounts reflexively criticize people who asked on Twitter for accurate information on what had happened; “stay out of politics,” the bots suggested, hardly something a human could say to someone who had just experienced the life-or-death question of a missile strike.

There wasn’t much news coverage because of the holiday weekend, but I think this episode will have a lasting impact on the American psyche. The number of people affected was not just the nearly 1 percent of the U.S. population who received and responded to the alert. Their friends and family members and anyone who ever visited Hawaii would be affected, reaching in varying degrees around one fourth of the national population. The collective impact on us is bigger than just the irritation of a fire drill. There is concern at what was revealed by the official response. Everyone is left with the unavoidable question, if this had been a real missile attack, would the national response have been equally indifferent and inept? Did the President know the missiles were not real when he decided to continue to the next hole in his golf game, or did he shrug off what could just as well have been a real attack, perhaps as some detractors suggested because the target was just Hawaii? Is the Pentagon this unable to respond to a crisis on every holiday weekend? In the event of a real attack, would the White House take hours to react, then use the incident as an excuse to blame local authorities? In short, is this a functioning country, or are we all on our own as soon as something goes wrong?

The unsettling answer, if we look at the question honestly, is that we do not know. The angst that goes with that uncertainty will linger in the national conversation for some time.

This did not need to be. In the aftermath of the mistaken missile alert, officials in Washington had an opportunity for moral leadership. It would have been a good moment to reassure Americans that we live in a real country, a country that is able to respond in the event of a crisis. They very pointedly did not take up that opportunity.