Maybe we don't want to return — at least not yet — to the days when bomb shelters were relatively common features in homes and citizens were drilled in "duck and cover" techniques in the event of a nuclear attack.
But the weekend's events in Hawaii, in which residents were panicked for 38 minutes by a false alarm about an inbound ballistic missile, suggest that the time has come for a serious review of the procedures in place to minimize the possibility that a simple mistake or misinterpreted event could trigger nuclear retaliation.
In Hawaii, officials explained, an employee pushed the "wrong button," sending an erroneous text warning to thousands of residents on Saturday morning. Understandably, many panicked. (We know of some Hawaii residents who slept through the entire thing, which actually seems like a good way to deal with this.)
But, as became clear in subsequent news reports, it wasn't a "wrong button" at all. Rather, the state employee faced a variety of choices on a pull-down computer menu.
Some of those choices were fairly mundane: For example, the employee could have clicked on a link marked "High Surf Warning North Shores," if the waves were treacherous.
If the employee wanted to send a test alert, the proper choice on the screen would have been "DRILL — PACOM CDW — STATE ONLY." (PACOM stands for the United States Pacific Command, based in Hawaii.)
But that's not the link the employee (who has been temporarily reassigned) clicked. That link read "PACOM CDW — STATE ONLY," and as a result, the missile alert was transmitted to Hawaiians, complete with these terrifying words: "THIS IS NOT A DRILL."
At the time, there was no option on the screen to signal a false alarm, but one since has been added.
Obviously, this is a system that could use some overhauling. For starters, the computer interface needs to be reworked to maximize clarity; as it stands, it looks like something a really bright middle school programming class might have tossed together over a couple of periods. And additional training probably needs to be in the works.
But these issues are not just limited to an office in Hawaii. Anyone with experience with nuclear diplomacy can recount cases when incomplete information and incorrect assumptions — compounded by immense and terrifying time pressure — brought the world close to nuclear disaster. In some cases, officials have just minutes to determine if an attack on the United States is underway or whether it's a false alarm. The record of these incidents is filled with instances in which an officer in the chain of command played a hunch — and made the right call.
This has a higher profile these days because of the continuing heated rhetoric between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who continue to taunt each other about their nuclear capabilities. In fact, it was North Korea's recent success in tests of its intercontinental missiles that prompted Hawaii to resurrect its Cold War-era nuclear warning sirens. Those sirens are scheduled to be tested on the first business day of every month for the foreseeable future.
That's not all that needs testing. In a world where nuclear worries have staged a very unwelcome resurgence, we must be sure that nation's nuclear command-and-control systems are as strong as possible.
But the very best way to keep Americans safe from a nuclear attack might be to stop issuing threats via Twitter and restore diplomacy to its rightful place in the policy arsenal. (mm)
Your letters on 101
Ballot Measure 101, the Jan. 23 referendum on new taxes to fund Oregon's Medicaid program, has generated a healthy debate among our readers. But, with the election drawing near, we have to impose a deadline on those letters. For us to consider Measure 101 letters for publication, we need to have them in hand by noon Thursday. And don't forget to return your ballot by 8 p.m. Tuesday. (mm)