The most frightening aspect is that the next alert might not be a false alarm. As the people of Hawaii and, indeed, the nation catch their collective breath, government leaders at all levels must give more thought to the unthinkable scenario of a nuclear attack upon the United States.
On Saturday, a false emergency alert was sent to cellphones across Hawaii: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” The error, according to state officials, was the result of a worker pushing the wrong button, but for 38 minutes people were left with the impression that the attack was authentic.
With North Korea possessing nuclear weapons and developing the capability of attacking the United States, and with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump engaging in back-and-forth exchanges while comparing the size of their nuclear buttons, the prospect of an attack does not seem far-fetched.
The Doomsday Clock, maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to gauge the threat of global nuclear war, sits at 2½ minutes before midnight — its most harrowing assessment since 1953. In moving the clock forward by a half-minute last year, the organization stated, “Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.”
It is fortunate that Hawaii’s false warning was the result of human error rather than a technical glitch that indicated an incoming attack. As Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, told Vox.com, a false reading could have resulted in a counter-
attack by the United States. That “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.”
Even a single large-scale nuclear explosion would have catastrophic consequences resulting in thousands or perhaps millions of deaths. And the theory of a “nuclear winter” hypothesizes that a war would have global consequences endangering all of humanity. The nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 was about 20 kilotons, and about 160,000 of the city’s residents died in the blast or the ensuing months. The most powerful weapon in the modern U.S. arsenal is about 455 kilotons, exponentially raising the stakes.
The prospect of a nuclear conflict has been largely out of mind for Americans since the end of the Cold War, but the need for preparedness has returned to the forefront during a new age of international tension. Politico reported Saturday that the Trump administration has yet to test formal plans for how senior officials would react to a domestic missile strike. “The U.S. government hasn’t tested these plans in 30 years,” one official said. “All the fresh faces sitting around the table in the situation room have little idea what their roles would be in this scenario.”
According to a press pool report, Trump was at a golf course while the Hawaii scare was unfolding and returned to his nearby private club, Mar-a-Lago, just as residents were informed that the alarm was false. Hours after the incident, his first public response was a tweet about “fake news,” the mainstream media, and Michael Wolff’s book about his administration.
While the odds of a nuclear attack upon the United States are small, leaders at the federal and state levels should take preparations seriously. The next warning might not be a false alarm.