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Cowboys and Aliens

ID4
A scene from the film "Independence Day"/Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

After 50 years of aliens invading pop culture and popular consciousness, the rumors just won't go away. Is the truth way out there after all?

By Christopher Weir

THE flying saucer invasion was very real in July 1947. Within a span of three weeks, nearly 1,000 sightings--many by police, fighter pilots and military officers--were reported to the Army Air Force. By September, the first UFO "flap" finally abated, but not before kicking down the doors between terrestrial certainty and alien provocation.

"The phenomenon reported," wrote Lieutenant General Nathan Twining in a secret internal memo sparked by the nascent UFO rage, "is something real and not visionary or fictitious."

Of course, as with everything else, it's no longer that simple. The increasingly strident UFO debate has devolved into a snakepit of hoaxes, crackpots, delusions, profiteering and conspiracy theories, as well as a sort of interstellar joyride for hordes of unstable minds. Which proves that, when all is said and done, UFOs are simply fodder for pathological mythmaking, right?

Not quite.

Despite mass ridicule, military nonchalance and diligent arch skepticism, the UFO phenomenon remains surprisingly intact, its implications neither proved nor disproved. And amid what UFO chronicler Jacques Vallee calls the "hall of mirrors," there has even been some evidence that the phenomenon's terminal confusion is, to some degree, encouraged by orchestrated disinformation campaigns.

Sure, it sounds like a bad movie. But that's the point. Or is it? Welcome to the hall of mirrors.

Ultimately, there are enough provocatively unresolved UFO sightings to legitimize the notion that something, somewhere, is going on.

So while much has changed since 1947, the basic questions surrounding UFOs--what's under the hood and who's in the driver's seat--remain the same.

Keep Your Eyes on the Skies (and on the Web):

X-Files X-clusive: 13 strange and spooky facts about the TV show that makes you want to stay home on Friday nights.

Circular Logic: Leading British UFO researcher ruminates on crop circles and other potential hoaxes.

Blue Moon: Local author tries to prove that the moon landing never happened.

Big Bang Theory: Orson Welles expert thinks the fat man would have enjoyed the hoopla around 'ID4.'

Paranoia Will Destroy Ya: Novelist Jay McInerney ponders the conspiracy behind 'The Arrival.'

The Truth is Online: Pointers to provocative UFO, aliens and X-Files web sites.

Kiss of Death

AMID A WORLD increasingly defined by deductive science and mainstream media coverage, being "unidentified" is the kiss of death. By today's standard, if evidence isn't empirical, it's not evidence at all. And if the likes of Newsweek and Tom Brokaw don't acknowledge something, it doesn't exist. So while you may think UFOs are cool, you don't blather on about them at cocktail parties.

If there were any truth to the UFO equation, how could it escape the hallowed scrutiny of the establishment? Easy. Consider that Copernicus, Galileo and Tesla (along with a variety of pioneering soulmates in the arts) were scandalously rejected as fringe lunatics by their contemporaries. Then consider how mainstream media function as lapdogs of reactionary thought, and it becomes quite clear: If UFOs were to represent the cutting edge of sociological and physical inquiry, the establishment would, by necessity and tradition, fall woefully behind the curve (witness the sneering tone and ineptitude with which Newsweek recently treated the complex UFO question).

In the words of leading British UFO researcher Philip Mantle, who passed through Santa Cruz earlier this month, "History is littered with scientific statements of the kind, 'It cannot be, therefore it isn't.' It's the same with the UFO phenomenon. But it's there if you're prepared to take a look. What it is remains to be seen--but, nonetheless, it's still there."

Are we thus prepared to declare ourselves the biological masterpiece of the multiverse? Sounds sort of like an invitation for those diminutive intergalactic intruders with the big eyes to turn us into glorified lab rats, doesn't it? Because somewhere between truth and proof lies possibility, and there are more than enough compelling UFO cases to drive this wedge deeper into our suspicions. For example:

  • During World War II, Allied fighter and bomber pilots reported agile light forms (later dubbed "Foo Fighters") that pursued their aircraft and sometimes caused instrument failure. The assumption was that the lights were a device of psychological enemy warfare. That is, until captured enemy pilots reported similar experiences that had engendered identical assumptions.

  • In July 1952, two radar systems tracked eight UFOs cruising through restricted Washington, D.C., air space at "phenomenal velocities." Airline pilots also reported "strange lights" over the Capitol and elsewhere. Fighter jet interceptors were dispatched and the UFOs disappeared from radar. A week later a similar sequence materialized and, at one point, Lt. William Patterson found his jet surrounded by menacing bluish lights. He requested permission to fire. Permission was granted. The lights vanished.

  • In September 1991, a live video feed from the Space Shuttle Discovery showed a bright object hurtling toward Earth. "This object," says Don Ecker, director of research for UFO Magazine, "suddenly shoots off at a hard right angle into deep space a split second before something shoots past it, as if somebody were firing at it." Recent airing of the footage by Fox Television confirms Ecker's visual analysis. NASA has since ceased live shuttle transmission feeds.

    In the wake of even the most confounding UFO cases, professional debunkers trot out their pet explanations, which usually include natural phenomena, misinterpretations of manmade objects or suggestive hallucinations. And like the more inventive flying saucer tales ("Aliens fired up their flameless grill and served me pancakes!"), these official explanations can strain credulity to the breaking point.

    For example, the Foo Fighters were dismissed as everything from ice crystals to ball lightning to incandescent gas, all of which fail to fully explain the dynamics of the phenomenon as reported. The Washington, D.C., sightings were blamed on temperature inversions, an explanation that was bitterly scorned by the trained radar operators and pilots at the time.

    And when questioned about the more recent space shuttle footage, NASA speculated that the object--right-angle turns and all--was ice ejected from the craft's wastewater dump.

    Whatever.

    saucer
    Unidentified Flying Object or Unexcusable Freaking Out?: Photos like this one, taken near Jalisco, Mexico, inevitably elicit condemnation, fear and ridicule -- whether they are the real thing or not.

    Corrupt Disc Drive

    'THE MANY RUMORS regarding the flying disc became a reality yesterday when the intelligence office of the 509th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc through the cooperation of one of the local ranchers and the Sheriff's office of Chaves County."

    While this would make alluring fiction, it makes an even better press release. Indeed, it's an excerpt from a statement released by the 509th Bomb Group on July 8, 1947. And thus was born the mothership of all UFO conspiracy theories, the Roswell incident.

    Hours after the "flying disc" announcement, the debris was officially reidentified as part of a weather balloon. The story died, only to be resurrected three decades later when some of the incident's major players started talking. By 1994, under pressure from a New Mexico congressmember, the Air Force admitted that the weather balloon angle was a farce, but claimed that the debris was "most likely" from a spy balloon configuration.

    In keeping with UFO tradition, the mysterious circumstances of Roswell have had so much crap heaped upon them that they've metamorphosed into a sort of counterintuitive industry, replete with innuendo and unchecked rumors. At every turn, cosmic quacks haunt serious researchers and hard facts disintegrate amid self-serving propaganda. ("Air Force engineers are hanging out with aliens at a secret base beneath the New Mexico desert!")

    Says Ecker, "There are some real first-rate charlatans in this field who have endeavored to either sell, promote or enrich themselves at the expense of legitimate investigative research. The bottom line is that the federal government--the intelligence people or the military--wouldn't have to do very much to keep this field in turmoil because of all the entrepreneurial snake-oil salesmen out there."

    It's easy to interpret the UFO community's obsession with governmental smoke screens as a strain of the egocentric paranoia that afflicts the "Black Helicopters of the New World Order" crowd. Much of it is based on the orthodox assumption that the military is either in possession of or in contact with aliens and their technologies, in which case it would be to the government's advantage to tie UFO researchers up in knots. Some swear it's the truth. Most of us reply, "Don't take me there."

    But there is another reason why the Defense Department might want to bait UFO researchers into intellectual chaos. Consider that because of their broad suspicions about the government's alien connections, UFO technofreaks, more than any other subculture, have their finger on the pulse of military stealth. Five years ago, they publicized the Air Force's top-secret Area 51, electromagnetic pulse weaponry, skybuster Star Wars technology, the Defense Department's swollen "black budget" and the military's sponsorship of a psychic "remote viewing" program. These are today a matter of mainstream public record.

    To put it another way, if the UFO phenomenon had gathered a full head of steam by early 1945, flying saucer enthusiasts would have been the first to let the cat out of the atomic bag.

    And, of course, we'd have all had a good laugh about it.

    kathaleen
    Saucers Are Her Cup of Tea: Santa Cruz hypnotherapist Merriam Kathaleen is convinced that many people who claim to be alien abductees are telling the truth.

    The Real World

    'IIT'S GOT LIGHTS all over it. It's just like silver metallic, but it's got lights all over it. It's fucking huge. ... He's taking me inside. We're in a hallway. There's some more of them waiting." This account from John Mack's studious 1994 bestseller, Abduction, is an archetypal recall of alien abduction, a phenomenon that has been scathingly derided as nothing more than mass hallucination. So why would The New York Times and other mainstream media do cartwheels ("Inspiring! A challenge to any reader!") over Mack's book? Because Mack cannot be lightly cast aside: He's a Pulitzer Prize­winning Harvard psychiatrist with decades of medical research under his belt.

    Mack's investigations transcend the reality vs. fantasy reductionism to which many would like to subordinate the abduction phenomenon. It's not a matter of how "real" the abduction experience is, he suggests, but rather of how it's a real experience for the abductee, one with revelatory and sometimes devastating psychological consequences. In other words, just because it doesn't conform to your (and Newsweek's and Tom Brokaw's) reality does not render it, by some false inverse, wholly imaginary.

    Says Merriam Kathaleen, a Santa Cruz­based hypnotherapist, "They are reliving the experience at the time they recall it. It's in their eyes, their body language, facial expressions. When you see them actually reliving it in front of you, it eliminates any thought that they're imagining this, that they're making it up or that they're building on a suggestion."

    Kathaleen, who is the facilitator for UFO Study Groups of Northern and Central California, describes a typical therapy session in which an abductee, a young man, was convulsing, screaming and crying. "False memory syndrome," she says, "does not bring such a reaction, and neither would an extrapolation of something else."

    Obviously, winks, sneers and giggles are no longer enough to contain the UFO phenomenon. That's not to say there aren't certain aspects of it that will elicit guffaws ("When I shot the alien, he did a few somersaults and landed atop my fence!"). But when the laughter categorically fails to subside in recognition of the phenomenon's more legitimate inquiries, it inches perilously close to ignorance.

    In the words of Edward Ruppelt, former director of the defunct Project Blue Book, the Air Force's official investigation into UFOs, "Maybe the final proven answer will be that all of the UFOs that have been reported are merely misidentified known objects. Or maybe the many pilots, radar specialists, generals, industrialists and scientists who have told me, 'I wouldn't have believed it either if I hadn't seen it myself,' knew what they were talking about. ... Only time will tell."

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  • From the July 25-31, 1996 issue of Metro

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