Among the underappreciated oddities of the 2016 election is that Hillary Clinton keeps talking about aliens. On the radio, in newspaper interviews, on late-night TV, she and her surrogates are vowing to “go into those files” and “get to the bottom of it.” What she wants to get to the bottom of is Roswell, UFOs, Area 51 — you know, the whole thing.
It’s a weird idea to campaign on. And no one is quite taking it seriously. (Almost no one, anyway.) But she’s right. Getting to the bottom of things is a sensible ambition for a president. And those things, those archetypes of American paranoia, have resisted analysis for too long.
White House aspirants have been mentioning them for a while, of course. Gerald Ford, as a congressman, asserted that “the American public deserves a better explanation” of UFOs. Jimmy Carter actually saw a UFO (he even filed the paperwork) and vowed to expose what the government knew if elected. Clinton’s husband claimed that he asked around about secret files but no one would tell him anything. (They never do.)
For all their enthusiasm, none of the three revealed anything interesting about UFOs while in office. And the U.S. is something of a global outlier in this regard. The U.K. maintains a government database of unexplained aerial phenomena (the au courant phrase for UFOs). France has a state agency dedicated to studying them. Many other governments — Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand — have recently made once-secret files public.
By contrast, silence has been de facto U.S. policy since 1970. American politicians often go into strange oratorical spasms when queried on the topic. (Consider Dick Cheney’s comically awkward evasions in this interview, at around 26:00.) What files the government has released, mostly from the FBI and NSA, have been charming models of bureaucratic insolence: page after lovingly redacted page, so comprehensively uninformative that one wonders if a metaphor was intended.
The problem is that into this void of official information rush all kinds of inventive fantasies. The main reason a prosaic spy-balloon crash in the New Mexico desert in 1947 became a byword for galactic intrigue was that the government dissembled about the real story for decades.
Worse, when people don’t trust what the government says, they’re apt to listen to demagogues and hucksters claiming to expose the truth. And with public trust in most American institutions at historic lows, a colossal cover-up is an appealing explanation of things for those of a certain mindset. (As another dabbler in unexplained phenomena once sang: “There’s UFOs over New York/and I ain’t too surprised.”)
Declassifying more files on UFOs — “disclosure,” in the vernacular — could be a useful rejoinder to that mindset. It would be a modest victory for transparency in an age of expansive secrecy. It would acknowledge, as other countries have, that just because something is unexplained doesn’t mean it must be withheld from the public. And it would obviously be awesome.
What it almost certainly won’t do is provide evidence of extraterrestrials. That would require something bolder of the next president.
In 1992, NASA began a formal mission to scan the universe for signs of alien intelligence. It was cheap, ambitious and scientifically compelling. It capped a decades-long effort within the agency to get people to take the idea seriously. And Congress killed it almost immediately.
Reconstituting that mission seems prudent. Almost everywhere astronomers look these days, the basic building blocks of life are turning up: on comets, in gas clouds, even on Mars. Data from the Kepler space observatory suggest there may be billions of habitable planets in the Milky Way alone. Academics increasingly support the notion that intelligent species may have evolved elsewhere. Is it really so crazy to look for them?
In reality, nothing much happened at Roswell, most UFO sightings are bunk and Area 51 is just an Air Force facility, much as we might hope otherwise. But the most enduring myths tend to express some deep human intuition. The sense that we’re not alone in the cosmos is a potent one. And there’s nothing wrong with embracing it.