News & Politics

What If the Bomb Warning Text Message in Hawaii Hadn’t Been a False Alarm?

America is not prepared for nuclear war.

Photo Credit: Surgay / Shutterstock

Did you even know, before last Saturday, that if the Button were pushed, the apocalypse was nigh and nuclear doom was enroute…that you would receive a text message first? Mudslides and tsunamis and Amber Alerts, sure. But an Armageddon Alert?

I didn’t. I bet most Hawaiians didn’t. But last Saturday morning virtually everyone in Hawaii, residents and tourists alike, received this text message: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.” (Surely at least a few of the out-of-towners thought, “Well, at least no one back home will be able to top this horrible vacation story!”)

It turned out to be a simple human error by a local emergency management official, clicking on the wrong option on a drop-down computer menu. Who among us hasn’t done that? But the explanation raises far more questions than it answers.

Do other American cities and states have similar plans to let us know in advance that the Bomb is headed our way? New York? Los Angeles? Vulture City, Arizona? I myself have been trying to fight 24/7 perpetual connection and social media addiction (not always successfully) by turning off my phone in the evenings. Do I need to rethink that now?

In addition, the events of last Saturday raise the possibility of a future false alarm scenario initiated by malevolent hackers. For all we know, some may have just gotten the idea last Saturday. And some may be able to infiltrate the networks of more than just local civic authorities. After all, hackers have proved themselves capable of getting into the computer systems of Sony Pictures, the DNC, Ashley Madison, Equifax, and the federal Office of Personnel Management. Why not NORAD, or the nuclear Strategic Command HQ just south of Omaha, Nebraska, or the U.S. Navy Atlantic Fleet Submarine Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia?

Could such hackers somehow move the worldwide American nuclear complex to swing into action? Remember that for decades now, the official American nuclear policy has been to “launch on warning” or “launch under attack”—while enemy ballistic missiles are “inbound”—to prevent the destruction of our ICBMs in their silos.

And if the Bomb is in fact headed toward your fair city, exactly where and how are you supposed to “seek immediate shelter"? And why? Yes, if you are far enough away from the hypocenter of the nuclear detonation, being indoors may reduce your exposure to radioactive fallout. But if you are closer, any building will either collapse upon you or be engulfed in the firestorm generated by any nuclear blast in an urban area, incinerating everything within (depending on the weapon’s “yield”) dozens or even hundreds of square miles.

I live in Washington DC SW, maybe a mile and a half due south of the United States Capitol. So I’ve been thinking about what I would have done if I had received the same text message on Saturday morning as did my fellow citizens in Hawaii. I know the Capitol might well be Ground Zero. The “ballistic missile threat inbound” might still be 30 or 40 minutes away. All my instincts tell me that instead of heading to the basement of my high rise, I should head instead to my car, jump on the 295 South, and drive considerably above the speed limit to get as far as I can, as fast as I can, away from the center of Washington.

Of course, one doesn’t have to be a very stable genius to come to this conclusion, which probably means that most of my neighbors would head off in the same direction. At best this would mean we’d all be driving considerably below the speed limit. More likely it would mean multiple traffic accidents slowing things down even further, and full-scale panic on the highway.

This is why “nuclear use theorists” (whom one can hardly resist identifying by the acronym NUTS) have long debated whether it would make sense to give any kind of warning of impending atomic attack at all. In the 1962 book FAILSAFE by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, made into a 1964 film by Sidney Lumet and Walter Bernstein, the U.S. president, played in the film by Henry Fonda, decides against warning the people of New York that two 20-megaton hydrogen bombs are headed their way, concluding it would do little to limit the devastation but would indeed “create panic.” (These bombs are about to be delivered upon an American city by American bombers, and if you don’t think that’s plausible go buy the book or watch the movie right now.)

Perhaps it would be somehow more "humane” to allow people to gather with their loved ones and say their goodbyes—which many in Hawaii did in fact do for 38 excruciating minutes last Saturday morning. But on balance, an emergency text alert of a genuine inbound nuclear missile might do more harm than good.  

There are, of course, alternatives to these insoluble dilemmas. Dial down the North Korean nuclear confrontation. Acknowledge that the North Korean state, like any sovereign state, will act to protect its own national security—in its case through a deliverable nuclear deterrent, the only possible means it might repulse an adversary possessing perhaps 1000 times its military power. End the infinitely provocative and completely unnecessary American and South Korean military exercises just miles from the North Korean border. (They are currently “postponed” until after the Winter Olympics next month in South Korea.) Stop the American president from trying to humiliate the leader of a nuclear-armed adversary nation, and tweeting about the size of his button. Pursue a peace treaty to finally bring an end to the Korean War started in 1950—more than two-thirds of a century ago!—that will promise to abjure “regime change” and provide meaningful security guarantees to Pyongyang. And help both Pyongyang and Seoul work together toward a unified Korea. (The proposal for a unified Korean Olympic women’s hockey team in PyeongChang next month would be a great start!)

Oh, and after that? Cancel both the Obama-era 30-year nuclear modernization plan (currently ringing up the military-industrial complex cash register at $1.2 trillion), and the just-revealed Trump plans to build new “low yield” nuclear warheads to “enhance deterrence.” Sign on to the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, agreed upon just last summer by 122 nations, for which the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a network of hundreds of peace and disarmament organizations, was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. And then launch a formal multilateral process to discern the verification measures, enforcement mechanisms, and global governance architectures we’re going to have to invent to someday bring about and perpetuate a world of nuclear zero.

“Inbound Nuclear Ban Treaty signed, ratified, now entering into force.” Now there’s a text message I’d like to receive.

Tad Daley is the author of Apocalypse Never: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World (Rutgers University Press). He is a fellow with the Center for War/Peace Studies. Follow him on Twitter @TheTadDaley.

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