The Hawaii Missile Incident Exposed a Serious Flaw in American Cognitive Security

This past Saturday, residents of Hawaii received an alarming text, stating “BALLISTIC MISSLE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” A similar message was repeated on public announcement systems throughout the state and was confirmed (and repeated) by local television and radio stations.

Text received by Hawaii Resident ©New Yorker

Approximately forty minutes later, another official message was sent by the Hawaii Emergency Management System stating that the missile threat was a “false alarm.” Governor David Ige later commented that the first message was erroneously sent when an employee “pushed the wrong button” during a shift change.

But the damage was done. Not only did the accident expose the lack of safeguards on Hawaii’s emergency broadcast system, it also — and more importantly — it revealed how wholly unprepared we, as Americans, are. Stories of residents desperately calling their loved ones and gathering water and other emergency supplies were rampant on social media. The New Yorker compiled some of the stories here. The panic psyche of the populace could not be undone.

If this was a one-off occurrence it could be categorized as a freak accident. But sadly this was not a black swan event. In April, 2017, at Penn Station in New York City, false rumors spread that there was an active shooter in the massive complex. The ensuing stampede of thousands of passengers injured 16 and shut down the busiest train station on the Eastern seaboard. Raw footage of the stampede circulating on the Internet shows the panic of the passengers who instantly assumed the rumor was real.

These two incidents reveal crucial vulnerabilities in the local and state emergency response infrastructure in the US: the lack of safeguards in Hawaii and the lack of a singular public announcement system for Penn Station. Each has forced other municipalities to examine their own systems.

However, the consequences of these two incidents go beyond the adequacy of emergency response systems. The two incidents demonstrate clear gaps in the American psyche — a set of cognitive insecurities — that enemies, both state and non-state, could exploit.

Two conclusions can be drawn from the incidents:

1. Americans are naïve and panic easily

2. Americans are wholly unprepared for disasters

While these conclusions might be crude, they reflect legitimate takeaways for enemy actors such as Russia and North Korea. For example, one of the primary goals of Russia’s disinformation operations around the world is to sow confusion, dissent, and mistrust. All these behaviors were on display at Penn Station. Those who were there believed in the rumor when in reality, no shots were fired. They believed that there was a shooting without checking any of the official channels, which blatantly stated that it was merely a rumor. The lack of verification was curious, as in most cases, the instinctive reaction would have been going straight to social media. Training and teaching of how to identify misinformation, whether intentional or unintentional, in both emergency and non-emergency contexts, would have alleviated some of the panic.

Stampede at Penn Station ©CNN

With the hysteria spreading throughout Penn Station, people forgot the second lesson in emergency situations: walk, don’t run. That, along with the inability of the security and law enforcement within the Station to quell the crowd, resulted in the stampede. It also proved that Americans are willing to injure others in the interests of self-survival. These are series flaws that enemy actors can easily exploit. Indeed, Russia’s mouthpiece, RT, reported on the Penn Station incident with a tone bordering on suppressed glee.

The first-hand testimonials of residents of Hawaii further highlight just how unprepared Americans are when facing disasters. Many did not know what to do in that emergency. Their distressed behaviors spread to their children, as tales of crying children abound. While we are not advocating for a return to the duck-and-cover drills of the Cold War, but, at the very least, we need to learn a set of shared emergency protocols. We need to not just learn these protocols, but know them reflexively. Unorganized, unhelpful freaking out helps no one and instead has compounding negative effects.

In the current context, understanding and fixing these two flaws in America’s cognitive security is imperative. North Korea’s erratic behavior makes the education of emergency protocols all the more crucial. And imagine Russian intelligence, or lone wolves, shouting about an active shooter in a crowded public place, even if there is none. Failing to address these two points — telling truth from fiction and instinctively knowing the proper emergency procedures — makes us our own enemy, responsible for our own casualties.

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