Early this morning, residents of Hawaii received an emergency alert on their cell phones and on their television screens: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER.” If that wasn’t enough to spark panic in a state where Cold War-era nuclear-attack alert sirens have been undergoing testing, the warning ended with those five dreaded words: “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Following several minutes of panic and confusion, various authoritative sources confirmed that the alert had been sent in error. Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard took to Twitter to say that she had “confirmed with officials” that there was no ballistic missile threat. U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) issued a statement noting that the “Earlier message was sent in error,” and that the State of Hawaii would issue a correction. Thirty-eight minutes after the original alert, a second followed: “There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.” Russian, Chinese, or North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) could make it to Hawaii in less than 38 minutes, mind you.
This is, to be clear, a catastrophic error. It quite justifiably undermines the American public’s confidence in the emergency alert system (EAS) and the competence of government authorities. Given President Donald Trump’s emotional volatility and unitary nuclear-launch authority, paired with North Korea's breakneck technological developments on its ballistic-missiles and nuclear-weapons programs, nuclear anxieties are higher today than at any time since the end of the Cold War. A false alarm, as a result, can inflict serious and undue psychological stress, particularly for Americans already feeling quite vulnerable to an ICBM-armed North Korea.