Is Anybody out There? –

Dedicated UFO followers have a term for when news of the phenomena breaks out into wider culture: flap.

It’s fitting, encompassing not only the idea of something springing open to let loose whatever is contained inside, but also calling to mind people running around with their hair on fire.

At the end of June, the Pentagon flapped open a report about engagements with UAP. The term UFO — unidentified flying object — has been changed to UAP — unidentified aerial phenomenon. It’s a more apt descriptor, as some of these things aren’t really objects at all, at least in the flying saucer mode of old, but lights, sensations and inexplicable happenings.

The most recent flap is a new limited documentary series UFO, produced by none other than J.J. Abrams, who knows a thing or two about outer space stuff, having directed a couple of Star War movies.

Abrams is good at building suspense. After I’d watched the first two episodes of the four-part series, it was already clear the production boasted an impressive parade of ex-military members, formers senators, award-winning journalists, New York Times reporters, and a couple of whackjobs to add some colour. But for the most part everyone is dead serious, occasionally tearful, and, most poignantly, desperate to be believed.

It’s almost impossible not to be drawn into the drama of people’s impassioned testimonies, in particular the former U.S. navy pilots and computer technicians who were party to the infamous USS Nimitz incident. This sighting has been well covered, but in short: on November 14, 2004, crew from the American aircraft carrier encountered something they couldn’t explain just off the Southern coast of California. Jets scrambled to intercept what pilots described as a Tic Tac-shaped object hovering just above the surface of the water, leaving a churning wake in its path. The craft was also recorded on infra-red camera.

As witnesses to the event tell their stories, something else comes to the fore: mortal humiliation.

In spite of being highly trained, responsible folk, in charge of one of the most powerful arsenals in the world, the men who came forward were treated like the village idiots. Kevin Day, a chief operations specialist for the U.S. navy, explains how being belittled, insulted and generally disbelieved had a profound effect on his life and the remainder of his career.

It’s a common experience among many people who claim to have seen something out of this world: being gaslit, derided or laughed at until they slunk away. The visible relief that someone might actually finally believe them is tangible.

Active betrayal is an ongoing theme in UFO, as evidenced by the infamous Phoenix Lights sighting. On March 13, 1997, thousands of people witnessed a series of bizarre lights over the city, including Fife Symington, then-governor of Arizona. Although Symington initially called for an investigation into the sighting, he later mysteriously recanted and turned the entire episode into a joke. Citizens of Phoenix who were convinced they’d seen something were outraged.

Other times, evidence of encounters simply disappeared. The crew of the USS Nimitz, for example, were met on-board by a group of plain-clothed men who required them to immediately hand over all documentation related to the event, and then vamoosed.

For all the talk of alien spacecraft and otherworldly visitations, one of the strangest aspects of the entire enterprise is this systematic discrediting — that anyone who claims to see something odd is laughed off the planet.

People believe all kinds of strange things, so the efforts to which UAP folks are denied credibility is itself a little odd.

But I’ve done it myself, after hearing from someone who claims to have been abducted, experimented upon or is missing a period of their life that they cannot in any reasonable way account for. Why, I’ve caught myself thinking, of all the billions of people on the planet, would aliens choose Bill?

But that’s the thing about aliens. They’re just so damn unpredictable. One moment they’re playing a game of chicken with the U.S. military and in the next, they’re hanging out next to a school yard in Zimbabwe.

One of the most believable accounts of a UAP encounter came from a group of eerily articulate school children who recounted for BBC cameras what they had witnessed. The uniformity of the children’s account tracked with other similar incidents, including a sighting in Wales when another group of schoolchildren witnessed something inexplicable.

A number of other credible folk, including former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, have claimed to witness UFOs.

But no matter what level of education, honourifics or body of work, even looking into the phenomenon is enough to brand one a kook. John E. Mack, the head of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, whose research into the experience of people who believed they had had an encounter with aliens, was subjected to an internal investigation for his work. The first ever such investigation undertaken for a tenured faculty member.

Other people, like journalist George Knapp, appear leery of having their reputations further tarred with sticky UFO conspiracy stuff. Knapp, whose work has garnered both Peabody and Edward R. Murrow Awards, stepped back from covering the topic, letting the New York Times break a story he’d been sitting on for years.

The New York Times 2017 exposé, as well as documentary features like The Phenomenon, interview some of the same people that are featured in Abrams’ series. The New Yorker took an even more in-depth approach to the subject through the experience of journalist Leslie Kean. Kean, who co-authored the Times’ story, sums up the experience of being systematically discredited from the very outset of her research into the subject. “That was the beginning of my education in the power of the stigma,” she told the New Yorker. Curiously enough, media coverage for Abrams’ UFO series has been quite respectful.

Although the production has more than its fair share of dramatic moments, lens flares and thudding orchestral accompaniment — you have to give the punters some old razzle dazzle — it also includes a lot of hardcore research.

But for all of its carefulness, some things in the series are just weird. The Guardian’s coverage cites a shadowy figure named Richard Doty, for example, who was the subject of an entire documentary feature called Mirage Men that offered an exhaustive explanation of how people who claimed to see UFOs were undermined and made to doubt their own experience.

Whether it’s government trickiness or something more prosaic like funding, dip one toe into the world of UAPs, and wheeeeee! The next thing you know, it’s impossible to know what is true, what is fabrication and why the space between these two things is so actively muddied.

Former Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, interviewed in UFO, explains how he came to procure more than $20 million for a little-known government department known as the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. The former head of AATIP, one Luis Elizondo is something a strange character himself.

In the Abrams series, some of the people who are the most confused and uncertain are also the most compelling. There is genuine pain in being so thoroughly disbelieved, but also a need for answers. After the release of the Pentagon report, even deeply knowledgeable people admitted, sotto voce, that yes, UAPs were real, but they didn’t know what they were.

But all that might be changing, as more concrete research is underway in scientific circles.

The Galileo Project, launched out of Harvard, is one of the most fascinating to emerge.

When things are horrendous on planet Earth, it is a natural impulse to look to the stars and think about what else, or who else, might be up there. And can they help us, or are they going to just zip about in their nifty spacecraft? NYT journalist Leslie Kean, whose feature story in the paper arguably helped garner greater respect and acceptance of the idea of UAPs, summed it up succinctly: “To me, this just transcended the endless struggle of human beings… It was a planetary concern.”

Or as science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke put it: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”  [Tyee]

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