A little after 8 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 13, 2018 a Hawaii state employee mistakenly selected the wrong item from a clunky drop down menu on a computer screen and triggered a statewide missile attack alert. For the next 38 minutes, until the state figured out how to cancel the alert, the citizens of the Aloha state contemplated the very real possibility that a North Korean nuclear missile might be about to impact and that life as they knew it was about to end.
The extensive media coverage of this debacle since has focused on how a false alert could be triggered in the first place and the psychological impact on the population of Hawaii.
What has received considerably less coverage in the media has been the extent of the confusion that the alert created and the apparent complete absence of any understanding on the part of the populace as to what to do in the event of an emergency of this type. Having an alert to let everyone know that a nuclear missile is inbound is one thing. Having a plan for what everyone is supposed to do then and ensuring everyone knows what it is —something else again.
During the 38 minutes of terror average Hawaiians fended for themselves. Some closed their windows, locked their doors and started filling containers with water. Some hid in ditches. Some stores opened their doors to people on the street; others shoved everyone out into the street. A certain number of individuals drove to the other side of Oahu away from Honolulu and huddled on the beach. Others abandoned cars on the freeway and ran for whatever they considered cover.
No one knew what to do. That is not just a failing on the part of the state. That is a failing on the part of the federal government and, in particular, the mammoth Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This time it was Hawaii. If we ran the same exercise tomorrow in any other major American city the result would be precisely the same.
All across America whatever civil defense apparatus we once had at the height of the Cold War has withered away completely, and despite the rapid advance of North Korean nuclear capabilities and the very real threat of war, nothing material appears to be in the works to replace it.
A North Korean nuclear attack, once the stuff of science fiction and bad action flicks, is unfortunately now a real threat for which we must plan. It is hardly the only mass casualty attack that is possible in an increasingly chaotic and violent world. While ISIS has lost its physical Caliphate in Syria and Iraq, it is still a worldwide terrorist organization bent on our destruction. So is al Qaida. Both have extensive experience with chemical weapons and ambitions to develop biological, radiological and nuclear weapons as well.
No matter how vigilant our law enforcement and intelligence services there is no such thing as blocking every shot on goal. The awful truth is, in fact, that a survey of terrorist attacks inside the U.S. in recent years shows that most occur without us receiving any pre-attack warning at all. From San Bernardino to Orlando to recent events in New York, we find out about the next attack when the news alerts us that it is already underway.
To date as horrible as they have been the attacks that we have seen have involved shootings, relatively small explosive devices and vehicle rampages. Tomorrow they may be much worse. The use of chemical weapons, the release of a biological agent or the detonation of a radiological dispersal device could all happen in a major American city tomorrow. Planning for such an eventuality is limited at best. Actual education of the public on what to do has effectively never begun.
Since 9/11 one of the unstated premises of American homeland security policy has been to avoid "panicking" the American people. We have endeavored to confront threats to security and safety while allowing the American people, to the maximum extent possible, to continue to live their lives as if those threats did not exist.
We paid the price for that philosophy on Jan. 13, 2018 in Hawaii. Next time the price we will pay may not be measured in panic and confusion, it may be measured in lives. It is long past time for us to put in place real civil defense preparations and to make sure American citizens know what they are.
Charles "Sam" Faddis is a Veteran, retired CIA operations officer, Senior Partner with Artemis, LLC and published author. With degrees from The Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland Law School, he is a contributor to sofrep.com, Newsmax, and The Hill among others. He regularly appears on many networks and radio programs as a national security and counter-terrorism expert. Sam is the author of "Beyond Repair: The Decline And Fall Of The CIA" and "Willful Neglect: The Dangerous Illusion Of Homeland Security." To read more of his reports, Click Here Now.
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