Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I’m reminded of a portion of the “I Have a Dream” speech that isn’t quoted as often, and perhaps ought to be, for its lessons to all of us: “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
Incompetence Is More Frightening Than Hackers
I spent much of Saturday wondering if the false warning of an imminent ballistic missile strike on Hawaii was the work of malicious hackers. That scenario would be strangely preferable, having a malevolent entity to blame, instead of accepting that the entire system for warning the public really can be activated by one employee pressing the wrong button, as the governor described it.
Apparently it wasn’t even a button; it was a drop-down menu on a computer screen.
Shortly after 8 a.m. local time Saturday morning, an employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency settled in at the start of his shift. Among his duties that day was to initiate an internal test of the emergency missile warning system: essentially, to practice sending an emergency alert to the public without actually sending it to the public.
Around 8:05 a.m., the Hawaii emergency employee initiated the internal test, according to a timeline released by the state. From a drop-down menu on a computer program, he saw two options: “Test missile alert” and “Missile alert.” He was supposed to choose the former; as much of the world now knows, he chose the latter, an initiation of a real-life missile alert.
“In this case, the operator selected the wrong menu option,” HEMA spokesman Richard Rapoza told The Washington Post on Sunday.
Around 8:07 a.m., an errant alert went out to scores of Hawaii residents and tourists on their cellphones: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” A more detailed message scrolled across television screens in Hawaii, suggesting, “If you are indoors, stay indoors. If you are outdoors, seek immediate shelter in a building. Remain indoors well away from windows. If you are driving, pull safely to the side of the road and seek shelter in a building or lay on the floor.”
Imagine getting that text, turning on the television for some sort of confirmation or reassurance that it was only a drill, and finding the same message running across the top of the screen, with a pre-recorded voice repeating the warning. No wonder Hawaiians were terrified; they awoke to find themselves in the early scenes of The Day After.
If it hadn’t been terrifying, it would have been comic; having scared the bejeebers out of most residents in the state, the state agency couldn’t quickly figure out a way to tell everyone it had been a false alarm:
Part of what worsened the situation Saturday was that there was no system in place at the state emergency agency for correcting the error, Rapoza said. The state agency had standing permission through FEMA to use civil warning systems to send out the missile alert — but not to send out a subsequent false alarm alert, he said.
The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency said it has also suspended all internal drills until the investigation is completed. In addition, it has put in place a “two-person activation/verification rule” for tests and actual missile launch notifications. On Saturday, Ripoza said, the employee was asked in the computer program to confirm that he wanted to send the message. In the future, a second person will be required for confirmation.
Our John Fund asks a fair question: if this sort of mistake doesn’t get you canned, what does?
“This guy feels bad, right. He’s not doing this on purpose. It was a mistake on his part and he feels terrible about it,” explained Hawaii EMA administrator Vern Miyagi, a former Army major general. But Miyagi declined to say that the staffer would face any disciplinary actions. Richard Rapoza, the official spokesman for EMA, declined to identify the errant employee and added, “At this point, our major concern is to make sure we do what we need to do to reassure the public. This is not a time for pointing fingers.”
Actually, it is. In the Air Force my father served in for some 20 years, anyone who committed such a blunder would have been demoted or cashiered — along with any superior officer, such as Miyagi, who had failed to put in place redundancies to prevent such a fiasco. That kind of accountability strikes me as a pretty good way to start to “reassure the public.” It’s not as if EMA didn’t have any clues something was potentially wrong. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that while 93 percent of test alerts issued last month had worked, some could hardly be heard and a dozen mistakenly played an ambulance siren.
See? Hackers would be a more reassuring explanation.
Learning the Backstory of the Infamous Media Men List
Moira Donegan stepped forward as the creator of the “[bad word]-y Media Men” list, an open spreadsheet that allowed her and her friends and colleagues to list bad behavior by men they knew in the (largely New York and Washington D.C.) media world, set up shortly after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke.
In the beginning, I only wanted to create a place for women to share their stories of harassment and assault without being needlessly discredited or judged. The hope was to create an alternate avenue to report this kind of behavior and warn others without fear of retaliation. Too often, for someone looking to report an incident or to make habitual behavior stop, all the available options are bad ones. The police are notoriously inept at handling sexual-assault cases. Human-resources departments, in offices that have them, are tasked not with protecting employees but with shielding the company from liability — meaning that in the frequent occasion that the offender is a member of management and the victim is not, HR’s priorities lie with the accused. When a reporting channel has enforcement power, like an HR department or the police, it also has an obligation to presume innocence. In contrast, the value of the spreadsheet was that it had no enforcement mechanisms: Without legal authority or professional power, it offered an impartial, rather than adversarial, tool to those who used it. It was intended specifically not to inflict consequences, not to be a weapon — and yet, once it became public, many people immediately saw it as exactly that.
She may have had the best of intentions, but there’s a pretty glaring contradiction there. First, she clearly wanted to warn as many women as possible, and she wanted it to be distributed as far and wide as possible within the industry. At the same time, she seems to think one can widely tell a significant number of people in the news industry about allegations of sexual assault and not inflict consequences!
Later in the same essay, she writes, “I hoped that women reporters who saw the document might use it as a tip sheet and take it upon themselves to do the reporting that the document couldn’t do and find evidence, if there was any, of the allegations made there.” In other words, she did want it to have consequences, and generate its own enforcement mechanism — one that would be more rigorous and careful about discerning the truth than the list was.
The value and consequence of the list comes down to the question, “what if one or more of the accusations on the list is false?” There was no system to appeal or dispute accusations. Every accuser was kept anonymous. There was absolutely no discernable cost to making a false accusation. No, the list wasn’t a criminal proceeding, but there’s a reason that criminal proceedings have the right to confront one’s accuser. The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution states that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” That wasn’t put in there by accident; the right of the accused (or the accused person’s counsel) to cross-examine an accuser makes false accusations less likely.
If a list of anonymous accusations is going to have serious consequences, then we are at a stage where one is guilty until proven innocent.
Donegan contends that a disclaimer was sufficient: “The document was indeed vulnerable to false accusations, a concern I took seriously. I added a disclaimer to the top of the spreadsheet: “This document is only a collection of misconduct allegations and rumors. Take everything with a grain of salt.” Although Donegan doesn’t mention this in her piece, the list also stated, “if you see a man you’re friends with, don’t freak out.”
Really? Were women reading the list supposed to just… pretend to not notice a friend being accused of sexual harassment or assault? Either a woman’s friend has done something bad, perhaps committing a heinous crime, or they’re being falsely accused of doing something bad, perhaps committing a heinous crime. Either way, a woman has good reason for “freaking out.”
Finally, the list included really vague and innocuous actions like “flirting” and “weird lunch dates” and it’s troubling that more women reading the list weren’t bothered by actions like that being on the same list as rape. Donegon never quite addresses that in her piece, beyond declaring, “Once a man had been accused of physical sexual assault by more than one woman, his name was highlighted in red. No one confused a crude remark for a rape, and efforts were made to contextualize the incidents with notes — a spreadsheet allows for all of this information to be organized and included.” Was everything contextualized? The whole list declared everyone on it as being “[bad word]-y,” regardless of the accusation. We in the general public have never learned what Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker did to deserve firing; he claims he only had a consensual relationship at work.
ADDENDA: Finally, a genuinely exciting weekend of football, with three of the four games going down to the wire. My sympathies to Falcons, Steelers and Saints fans. Someone who’s doing a good impression of Dennis Miller in his NFL announcing days remarked, “we haven’t seen Vikings beat up on the Saints like this since Edmund the Martyr was slain by the Great Heathen Army in 865.”
Closer to home, I’m scheduled to appear on the Turn on the Jets podcast with Scott Mason again in the near future, discussing free agency, and in particular, the merits and costs of Kirk Cousins, the Washington Redskins quarterback who is expected to depart in the offseason.