The person in Hawaii who accidentally sent a 'missile incoming' text may have prevented nuclear war from breaking out in 2018

Remember the downing of Korean Air 007 over eastern Russia in 1983? The circumstances surrounding that tragedy were markedly similar to what we’re seeing today

David Usborne
Tuesday 16 January 2018 11:37 GMT
Video shows false emergency alert warning of a ballistic missile in Hawaii

I have a film script to sell you. It involves a shy but quietly seething public servant in America who believes his country, complacent and somnolent, is on the brink of terrible catastrophe. Only he can save it. Only he can save the world, in fact. Ready?

We open in Hawaii. Fade from palm trees and the beaches below Diamond Head to the drab interior of the state’s emergency management office. Our hero is staring gravely at a computer screen, weighing his approaching perfidy, sweat on his brow.

He has been assigned a routine safety drill. Will he, as he has been instructed, click the tab that merely simulates sending out text messages to the entire populace warning that ballistic missiles are on their way and will shortly smash into the archipelago? Or will he disobey orders and send the message for real, tell the islanders that missiles are indeed inbound when he knows it’s a lie?

We know his answer from the ominous turn in the music score. Violins and horns. No one is looking over his shoulder. There is no way to take the message back once it is out there. He knows the pandemonium he is about to unleash but does it anyway.

It’s 8.07 am on a pretty Saturday morning. “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL”. It’s sent. Done. A million breakfasts are instantly ruined.

Cut now to a collage of ordinary folk abruptly struck by terror and confusion. You’ve seen this in disaster movies. The obese but insouciant man on deck 3 who feels the shudder of a sundered hull. The mother and child with asthma in row 32 as all four engines fail. In a split second they are jerked from assumptions of safety and security to thinking they are about to be obliterated.

In my film, the streets of Honolulu are suddenly filled with people running hither and thither searching for cover. Those inside think to turn to Google and look up: “How to survive a nuclear blast.”

Most of this actually happened last weekend, as you probably know. Someone did press the wrong tab on his computer in the emergency management office and that message did go out to mobile phones all across the islands. It was nearly 40 minutes before a second text arrived saying, oops, it was a mistake. So I am plagiarising reality, even if it is a rather unbelievable reality.

The hero bit is all mine, however. All we know about the person who did this is that he has been “reassigned” from his job as punishment. Understandable. Yet maybe we should be casting him as a hero, even if most Hawaiians would disagree. At the very least we should be thanking him.

No? Well, let’s pursue our movie a little further. First we cut to the President of the United States rushing before the cameras to issue an apology to the traumatised people of Hawaii. What kind of country allows a cock-up of such magnitude to occur? Yes, this is the point when I really do start making it up. Donald Trump was golfing when this happened and did no such thing.

Swiftly to the next scene: more computer screens and furrowed brows worn by men in military garb, including one who is younger and pudgier than the others. He is Kim Jong-un and we are in a bunker somewhere near Pyongyang. The US has issued an incoming missile alert in Hawaii but it’s not one of theirs. What’s going on? Is this America making up this false attack – fake news – to justify launching one of its own on North Korea? Are missiles headed their way?

Kim is nervous, on edge. Trump has been baiting him for months, calling him “rocket man”. At the UN, no less, he spoke of incinerating North Korea if it threatened the US. So this is surely it. Trump, the “dotard”, has launched. He must do the same. Kim orders a strike on San Francisco.

Our tale, you begin to see, is a parable about how swiftly nations, especially those led by men with uncertain mental steadiness, can stumble into a nuclear conflict that might consume us all.

Again, you doubt me. But let’s remember, as The New York Times did this week, the downing of Korean Air 007 over eastern Russia in 1983. Bound to Seoul from Anchorage, it had erred into Soviet airspace. Mistaking it for a US spy plane, the Russians took it out.

Tragically, 269 lives were lost, but it was almost very much worse. Moscow thought the incursion was a set-up by the US meant to provoke the shoot-down and thus provide a pretext for the launch of a nuclear strike against Russia. As the Soviet leaders stumbled blindly towards possible calamity so did the American President at the time, Ronald Reagan, who voiced fury over what had happened. “The KAL incident demonstrated how close the world had come to the nuclear precipice and how much we needed nuclear disarmament,” Reagan was later to reflect in his memoirs.

So thank you, whoever you are in Honolulu. I am assuming what you did was a genuine mistake and it’s true that you scared the living daylights out of thousands. But it may end up having positive consequences.

Steps are already being taken to ensure it can’t happen again: two people will have to sign off on sending out missile alerts in the future and new software will ensure that if ever false alerts do go out, they can be instantly reversed and not left out there to fester for 38 minutes as happened on Saturday (more time than it would take a North Korean missile to reach Hawaii).

More importantly, you may even have made a nuclear conflict in the near-term less likely. We know the National Security Council continues to ponder military options to crush Kim. We also know that the Pentagon is actively preparing the troops for a possible war on the Korean peninsula. The mishap in Hawaii is a reminder of how quickly things can get out of control when both parties in a conflict have nuclear capabilities. And video clips of panic from Honolulu last weekend were a reminder of how terrifying the mere possibility of a nuclear war is for all of us.

All that assumes that Trump, as he wavers between diplomatic and military steps to deal with Kim, was paying attention. We know he wasn’t, but hopefully by now someone has filled him in on what happened.

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