The Daily Illini

The presidential alert system shouldn’t be partisan

By Hayley Nagelberg, Columnist

I once heard about an ethical dilemma posed in my psychology class that asked participants: “If the government found out the entire world was going to end in ten minutes, should they let everyone know so they could say their goodbyes, or should they keep it to themselves to avoid the panic?”

In this experiment, the question of how the government could spread this message of impending doom was not discussed; it was simply assumed there would be a mode of mass communication.

On Oct. 3, at 2:18 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, President Donald Trump sent out a mass text to nearly every cell phone in America. The text said, “This is a test of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.”

Countless news articles popped up, warning Americans this test message would occur. Online conversations ensued about whether or not people could block the text from appearing on their phones. Saturday Night Live created a sketch mocking the system, creating pretend messages sent out by President Trump about Puerto Rico and Kid Rock. The sketch had a woman so frustrated by these texts she drowned her phone in the water of a street vendor’s cart.

There is nothing funny about the existence of this mass-messaging system, nor should this be a partisan conversation.

In the 1950s, after the Cold War, television and radio broadcasters came together with a plan to let citizens know about, and calm fear before, impending nuclear war, while also keeping Soviet bombers uninformed.

After that, other plans were unveiled using small, inexpensive buzzers people could install in their homes. Then, for a brief period, the Emergency Broadcast System would prepare ways to inform citizens of attacks daily. Some Mayoral offices had designated buttons to press to get in touch with all of their constituents.

When George W. Bush was president, he called to mind the fact that cell phones are now the simplest and most encompassing manner by which Americans communicate. And it was in fact former President Barack Obama, in 2016, who required the Federal Emergency and Management Agency (FEMA) create such a system in the event of an emergency.

While much can be said about how President Trump uses Twitter to get in touch with people around the nation and around the world, this mass text should not have been the time to mock this matter.

It would be nice to hope this mass text never needs to be used in earnest, but we must be aware of the state of the global world.

Perhaps you believe the answer to that ethical experiment would be to not notify the world of impending disaster, but the current accepted bipartisan answer to that question is in fact to give people the opportunity to take cover and prepare for what is to come.

Until that changes, don’t try to silence this system, don’t turn it into a partisan conversation and don’t mock it, either.

Hayley is a senior in ACES.

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