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General News    H3'ed 1/18/11

Tomgram: Engelhardt, Alien Visitations

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In the Crosshairs

By Tom Engelhardt

"Slowly a humped shape rose out of the pit, and the ghost of a beam of light seemed to flicker out from it.  Forthwith flashes of actual flame, a bright glare leaping from one to another, sprang from the scattered group of men.  It was as if some invisible jet impinged upon them and flashed into white flame.  It was as if each man were suddenly and momentarily turned to fire.

"Then, by the light of their own destruction, I saw them staggering and falling, and their supporters turning to run..."

That, as H.G. Wells imagined it in 1898, was first contact with a technologically superior and implacable alien race from space, five years before humanity took to the air in anything but balloons.  And that was how the Martians, landing in their "cylinders," those spaceships from a dying planet, ready to take over ours, responded to a delegation of humans advancing on them waving a flag of peace and ready to parlay.  As everyone knows who has read The War of the Worlds, or heard the 1938 Orson Welles radio show version that terrified New Jersey, or watched the 1953 movie or the Stephen Spielberg 2005 remake, those Martians went on to level cities, slaughter masses of humanity using heat-rays and poison gas, and threaten world domination before being felled by the germs for which they were unprepared.

Germs aside, Wells's Martians did little more than what earthly powers would do to each other and various "lesser" peoples in the 112 years that followed the publication of his book.  Now, a group of scientists writing in an "extraterrestrial-themed edition" of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A in Great Britain warn us that we should ready ourselves for the possibility of alien contact.  We should, in fact, "prepare for the worst" which, according to contributor Simon Conway Morris, could be summed up this way: thanks to neo-Darwinian laws of evolution assumedly operative anywhere, such aliens, should they exist, would probably be more or less like us.

Long before Morris, Wells understood that the most dangerous aliens weren't in space, but right here on planet Earth, and concluded that he lived among them.  When he wrote his ur-alien-invasion novel, he was evidently using the British "war of extermination" against the Tasmanians as his model.

Of course, we in the United States have few doubts about who the aliens on this planet are: Them! (the title of a classic 1954 sci-fi movie about monstrous mutant ants that infest the sewer system of Los Angeles). In my childhood, "them" was "the commies," of course.  Now, it's certainly Muslims or jihadists or Islamo-fascists.

When one of them commits some nightmarish act, whether a slaughter at Fort Hood in Texas, the planting of a car bomb in New York City's Times Square, or the donning of an underwear bomb for a flight to Detroit on Christmas day, our response is a shudder of fear and loathing, followed by further repression.  After all, each of those acts is imagined as part of a barbaric and fiendish pattern inimical to our safety.  Perhaps because it's assumed that they are mentally ill ("fanatic") en masse, that being "a loner" isn't part of their culture, and that individuality is not one of their strong points, the heinousness of the act is focused upon rather than the potentially damaged nature of the individual who acted.

It's only when a Timothy McVeigh or a Jared Loughner emerges from the undergrowth that problems arise and reactions change.  (Keep in mind that McVeigh's crime, the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City which killed 168 people, was initially blamed on Arab terrorists and that, had Loughner gotten away from that Safeway in Tucson, similar warnings might have been raised.)  It's only then that the bizarre individuality, even the twisted humanity, of such acts comes to the fore and so mental illness becomes a possible explanation.  It's only then that, instead of fear and panic, we "grieve" as a nation and engage in a "conversation" about the state of ourselves.

Not surprisingly, the police mug shot of Loughner featured on the front-page of my hometown paper (and probably every other paper in America) was the equivalent, for the American conversation, of manna from heaven: a smiling maniac, the Grim Reaper gone bonkers, someone who had visibly absorbed left, right, and every kind of fringe into his dream world and conveniently come out a "nihilist."

In the Crosshairs

Whether it's obvious or not, all of this avoids a different kind of conversation about slaughter and mania.  After all, thought of from a Wellsian perspective, it's always possible that the Martians could actually be us (or us, too, at least) -- and not just the madmen among us either.  Welles was a rarity on this issue.  When it comes to thinking of ourselves as "them," normally it just doesn't come naturally.

At a moment when a single horrific incident, the killing of six Americans and the wounding of 13, including a member of Congress, looms so much larger than life and has for days become "the news," when our world has been abuzz with media discussions about civility in U.S. politics, crosshairs and where they were placed, the president's role as "national healer," and various profiles in courage among the living and dead, when the focus, in other words, is so overwhelming, you have to wonder what's hidden from sight.

One out-of-sight matter to consider might be those crosshairs -- not on a symbolic political map but over actual humans beings, resulting in multiple deaths.  I'm talking about our war in Afghanistan.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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