Hawaii Missile Attack: False Alarm, False Issue

This morning (January 6, 2018) the people of Hawaii were scared half to death by a missile-attack alert. They frantically relayed the alert to their friends and loved ones and scrambled to find safety. Then 30 minutes later, the authorities rescinded the warning, describing it as a false alarm.

Fantastic news, obviously, but the people of Hawaii were understandably furious to have experienced the panic. I felt sympathetic with Hawaiians as I watched the news story on TV; I can't imagine what would be running through my mind if I thought missiles were headed towards my home, or how I would feel to learn I experienced that terror for nothing.

As the story played on, though, it became weird. Although newsworthy, that same story played on and on for an hour as I sat in the McDonald’s Playland, and as I left with my daughter an hour after that, the anchor said they had been covering the story for three hours. Who knows how long they covered the story after we left. It’s bizarre that Fox couldn’t find more to talk about in those three or more hours.

Granted, this was shocking and the people of Hawaii have every right to be angry, but threat detection is no trivial matter, and you don't need to look any further than the human brain for proof.

As cognitive scientists have long known, the human brain has a "threat-detection circuit" that causes us to react to immediate danger. If you're walking along a path and you see a snake, you jump back. You don't have to think about it—your brain immediately takes over and causes your body to protect itself. In fact, you can't think about it because the whole event happens so quickly.

What's interesting is that the brain, the most advanced computing platform in the known universe, is often wrong. Why? Because detection can be optimized for accuracy or speed, but not both. If the threat is the object of detection, then it must be optimized for speed because survival depends on it. Jumping backward because you mistook a stick for a snake may be annoying, but being annoyed is better than being dead as a result of taking too long to accurately identify some object as a snake that’s poisonous, within striking distance, and looking at you with ill intent.

Likewise, a system meant to detect and communicate a missile attack must be optimized for speed. Un’s missiles are thought to travel at around 10,000 MPH, meaning one would reach Hawaii in a mere 20 minutes. (That we can detect a tiny metal tube traveling at those speeds is, itself, remarkable.) That said, every safeguard against false alarms takes precious seconds or minutes that, in a real attack, would cost lives.

Not to trivialize the false alarm, I do think it worthy of attention, and whatever can be done to safely minimize false positives should be done. But the real issue—the issue most worthy of attention--is why the threat from North Korea is a credible risk, to begin with.

Predictably, the mainstream media don't just give this question less attention; they give it no attention whatsoever. Like the events surrounding 9/11, mainstream journalists like to think that those in North Korea and other countries hate us for trivial or irrational reasons like we’re too free, too Christian, or because we “let” our women show too much ankle. Our journalists think the US is just an innocent a victim, and never consider for a moment that maybe—just maybe—these countries have legitimate reasons for resenting or hating the US.

The Golden Rule is often the best tool for illustrating the hypocrisy of the US government, and it is here. If Russia had 25,000 troops at the Mexican border and another 40,000 troops stationed in Cuba, how would Americans feel? How might the US government react? I imagine it would verbally make it clear that the provocation will be interpreted as an act of aggression, hurriedly build up its military, and test new weapons thought to overcome the enemy’s strengths. There wouldn’t be any debate about it because most people would think the reaction reasonable and obvious.

But in our backward world, the reverse is not true. The US has some 25,000 troops on the North Korea’s doorstep and another 40,000 troops in nearby Japan. The Korean War—excuse me, “police action”—ended in 1951, but almost 70 years later our military is still in North Korea’s backyard and performing increasingly elaborate “war games” every single year.

Can you imagine Russia performing war games in the regions surrounding the US? No, and neither can North Korea, whose ambassador to the UN said, “As long as there is a continuous hostile policy against my country by the U.S. and as long as there are continued war games at our doorstep, then there will not be negotiations.” That would be a reasonable demand if the US were making it of Russia, but this is apparently heresy and crazy talk when demanded by North Korea. The ambassador went on to say, “There are continued military exercises using nuclear assets as well as aircraft carriers, and strategic bombers and then...raising such kinds of military exercises against my country.” That’s hardly the analysis of a madman.

In response to the massive 2017 wars games, Un said that he was prepared to use nuclear weapons preemptively, if necessary. That is terrible, but you can thank the US government for giving him the idea. Don’t believe it? Perhaps you’ll recognize the idea by it’s more common name: the Bush Doctrine, named after President George W. Bush who asserted a moral case for military preemption and unilateralism.

I don’t want North Korea to have nuclear weapons any more than the next guy, but the US has no right to force its will through sanctions and military intimidation. Neither does it have a right to wag its finger, seeing as it has almost 10,000 nuclear warheads.

You can’t blame a dog for showing its fangs when you back it into a corner yelling, “STOP THREATENING ME!,” and likewise, you can’t blame Un for reacting to the nearby presence of 65,000 American soldiers, battleships, fighter jets, helicopters, and elaborate war games. Un is a tyrannical piece of human filth, but his military response to American intervention is not madness; it’s completely consistent with what the American response would be were the roles reversed.

Forcing North Korea to de-escalate is very likely to fail for exactly the same reason it would fail if Russia tried it against the US: People and the nations they constitute resist force. If the US really wants to defuse the situation, then it must stop practicing the military overthrow of North Korea (i.e. war games)  and get its troops out of the region. This would make way for peace talks, trade talks, and normalized diplomatic relations. Nothing could be easier or more productive for the cause of peace.

Is there a risk that North Korea would take advantage of the situation and attack South Korea? Perhaps, but Un wouldn’t stand a chance of victory, and he knows it. He is a monster to his people but doesn’t want war with South Korea, China, Japan, and the US. He just wants the aggressive behavior to end, and if there’s one thing—and only one thing—in the world we can’t fault him for, it’s that.

Let’s bring our troops home, let the Koreans take ownership of their own futures, and start minding our own business.

ArticleMichael Clark