Mistaken Missile Strike Alerts Revive Cold War-era Questions

Jan 18, 2018

On Saturday morning the residents of Hawaii received a text alert, warning of an imminent missile strike, only to learn it had been sent in error.  A similar mistake happened in Japan on Tuesday. These incidents have revived questions that people asked during the Cold War about how people prepare for and respond to the threat of a nuclear strike. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke to Dr. Richard Bloom, director of terrorism, intelligence and security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott.

I think a lot of people in Hawaii simply didn’t know how to respond to this emergency alert they got; do you stay in place, do you shelter, what do you do? So what should people do in a situation like that? 

Well, that’s been a big problem, going back to the beginning of the nuclear weapons era, especially if you’re talking about a catastrophe nuclear attack with many intercontinental ballistic missiles being used, I’m not sure there is a right thing to do except perhaps getting as close to your loved ones as you can. I’m old enough to remember the 1950s and “duck and cover” in the elementary schools, going down to the basement, putting your hands over your head, or folding your hands and having your back straight, or getting into various postures, as if that would make a difference if a nuclear attack was actually underway.

And your background is in psychology, so can you tell me a bit more about how people tend to respond emotionally to an incident like this?

The fact that quite frankly there’s very little you can do, especially against a catastrophic nuclear attack, makes it very difficult to predict what people’s reactions might be. A quick little vignette here: I remember reading an unclassified government document about if there were a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, involving large numbers of intercontinental ballistic missiles, there was actually paperwork being generated about how you could continue to get your paycheck after these attacks, as if such a thing would actually be going on.

What do you recommend to state officials who are trying to improve their emergency alert systems or develop emergency plans for these situations? 

Whether you’re at the federal level or state level, the only real appropriate thing to do is to continue to collect information, have multiple sources of that information, have experts interpreting the information, and then have various layers of action that may be appropriate in terms of the communicating with the general public. There’s no perfect way of doing that. Unfortunately quite a bit of empirical research and social psychology show that people often will grossly misinterpret that kind of information, often leading to social hysteria, but even if not, the predictably of sharing information with the general public, and having some idea of how the public will react, is just a notoriously difficult thing to engage in.

The other thing that I think might be relevant to this question of nuclear weapons deployment; it certainly should concentrate the mind about how one leads one’s life on a daily basis, one’s values, what’s important, the kind of work you want to do, the kind of people who love and hopefully love you; that daily rich existence should become ever more cherished, and we should focus on those kinds of things even more, because of the unpredictably of the world in which we live today, where because of technology, fewer and fewer people can hurt more and more other people.

Dr. Bloom, thank you very much for speaking with me today.  

Thank you for having me.