At 8:07 a.m. on January 13, 2018, every smartphone screen in Hawaii lit up with a single message, in all caps: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” In fact, it was a false alarm triggered by a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency worker who mistook instructions he had received during an unscheduled emergency drill for a real attack. Nevertheless, motorists drove erratically as they raced to park their car inside a freeway tunnel. Spectators fled sporting events, and college students ran to campus tsunami shelters. Some people called or texted their loved ones to say goodbye.
It was not until 8:38 a.m. that the State of Hawaii issued a correction on its emergency-alert system. It took nearly half an hour, the governor later confessed, because he could not remember the login for his official Twitter account. The White House issued no communication until later in the day, when a deputy press secretary said in a statement that the president had been briefed on the incident and that “this was purely a state exercise.”
From the safety of my apartment in Oakland, California, I had two thoughts: First, I was glad to be headed to the farmers’ market that Saturday morning—and glad not to be serving as secretary of homeland security anymore. Second, it was clear that the incident, however bizarre it appeared on the surface, revealed systemic failures far more serious than any being discussed in the media. What if this had been not an accident, but a hack by a hostile actor intended to cause chaos not only in one American city or state but in many? What if the goal had been to distract Americans and provide cover for another type of attack? What if public panic caused traffic accidents or heart attacks? A breakdown in public order?