The nutjobs at it again, suggesting that aliens — extraterrestrials, not undocumented workers — are monitoring US “nuclear sites.” Lee Speigel of AOL’s Weird News Team offers a nice summary:

UFOs have monitored and possibly tampered with American nuclear weapons, according to a group of former Air Force officers who will make their claims public next week at a Washington, D.C., news conference.

“While most of the incidents apparently involved mere surveillance, in a few cases, a significant number of nuclear missiles suddenly and simultaneously malfunctioned, just as USAF security policemen reported seeing disc-shaped craft hovering nearby,” says Robert Hastings, author of “UFOs and Nukes: Extraordinary Encounters at Nuclear Weapons Sites.”

On Monday, at the National Press Club, Hastings will present six former Air Force personnel who will break their silence and disclose dramatic first-hand experiences with UFOs at nuclear weapons sites.

No doubt, the aliens downloaded the US Additional Protocol declaration like everyone else.

But seriously, what is it about aliens and nuclear weapons that seem to link the two in the popular imagination?

This is not the first time ’round the mulberry bush for this crowd.  Retired Air Force captain Robert Salas claimed in 2001 that UFOs disabled some ICBMs in 1967.  Salas is apparently realistic about the prospect of securing an official inquiry after his 2001 appearance, claiming he’s “not as naive as I used to be.”

Yeah.

I have to say, though, the idea of ET disabling nuclear-armed ICBMs is wonderful.

“Hey Zorg, what did you do last night?”

“Oh, I downed a case of beer, then drove the saucer over to Earth where I disabled some ICBMs to see if I could start a nuclear war.  Delicate balance of terror, my ass.”

“Zorg, that’s awful.  You know you shouldn’t drink and drive.”

Right, so. What is it about nuclear weapons and aliens?

I suppose part of it is that both nuclear weapons and space travel became realities at the same time, during the Golden Age of Science Fiction to boot.  I should be surprised if the “Roswell” incident happened anywhere other than New Mexico.

But I think the connection is deeper, and suggests something about the profound intellectual dilemma posed by nuclear weapons, as well as how Americans use science fiction to ponder unpleasant thoughts.  Our civilization  defines itself in terms of scientific and technological progress, but that very progress also opens up the possibility that our civilization might ruin itself.  That’s sort of heavy.

But nuclear weapons are heavy.  So, while some people think nuclear weapons are just a bigger bomb; there is an alternate view.  Nuclear weapons threaten destruction on such a scale, and at such speed, that they are profoundly different.  In this view, we ought not think of nuclear weapons as  just another munition in a modern armory nor should we conclude that ours are good and theirs are bad.  The very existence of nuclear weapons poses a  shared danger that compels us to cooperate with the bad guys.  Which is not how one thinks about a tank.

In France, you might imagine debate such a question in a cafe, surrounded by a haze of smoke.  In the United States, we leave these conversations to Science Fiction.   That is, perhaps, because outer space is a safe distance from our own lives.  Berthold Brecht coined the term Verfremdungseffekt, or alienating effect, to describe the stage device of distancing the audience from the narrative in order offer critical perspective. He wasn’t thinking about science fiction in particular, but that’s because he’s German.  In America, we prefer our allegories to play out a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.

Among the many sci-fi efforts that tried to tackle the danger posed by nuclear weapons, I think the best is The Day the Earth Stood Still — a 1951 film ostensibly about an alien named Klaatu who has traveled to earth to warn human beings that if they do not eliminate war, then the rest of the universe will eliminate them.

The proximate cause of Klaatu’s visit is humankind’s development of nuclear weapons and space travel.  Now that human beings have the technological prowess to export our warlike ways off our home planet, the rest of the universe has decided to take action.

You can see where this is going.  Klaatu is a metaphor — nuclear weapons have brought to the earth a danger that compels us to rethink our bellicose habits.  This is a cinematic representation of Albert Einstein’s famous remark about nuclear weapons having changed everything, save our modes of thinking.  If it is hard to see the abstract principle of shared danger in the existence of nuclear weapons, it is easy to understand Klaatu’s ultimatum.

So, the alien is a metaphor — and a pretty effective one, at that! Ronald Reagan, who liked B movies (and not just the ones he starred in!) remarked on a couple of occasions who our differences would fade if confronted by aliens — much to the chagrin of his staff.  A lot of people, including Colin Powell, concluded Reagan was thinking about The Day the Earth Stood Still.  It seems Klaatu made an impression on at least one statesman, after all.

We may have forgotten what a good metaphor aliens make, now that we have terrorists.  I suspect much of the contemporary discourse about the threat from nuclear terrorism is really a debate about the need to cooperate to preserve shared interests, with Osama bin Laden serving as the other who compels us to find common cause with our erstwhile adversaries.

Of course, the important part about Verfremdungseffekt – whether the metaphor is an alien or a terrorist — is that the audience not get lost in the narrative.  The point is to offer the viewer objectivity and the opportunity for critical thought, not to put one over him.  That’s hard for some people who don’t intuitively grasp allegory or metaphors.  As a result, there are always some people who get a little lost in the fantasy world of science fiction.  I am reminded of my favorite story involving Sir Alec Guinness:

Then I began to be uneasy at the influence [Star Wars] might be having. The bad penny first dropped in San Francisco when a sweet-faced boy of twelve told me proudly that he had seen Star Wars over a hundred times. His elegant mother nodded with approval. Looking into the boy’s eyes I thought I detected little star-shells of madness beginning to form and I guessed that one day they would explode.

`I would love you to do something for me,’ I said.

`Anything! Anything!’ the boy said rapturously.

`You won’t like what I’m going to ask you to do,’ I said.

`Anything, sir, anything!’

`Well,’ I said, `do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?’

He burst into tears. His mother drew herself up to an immense height. `What a dreadful thing to say to a child!’ she barked, and dragged the poor kid away. Maybe she was right but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.

Without distance, some people will live in the fantasy world.  Eventually, all perspective may be lost.  An unfortunate byproduct of the conceptual link among nuclear weapons, space travel and aliens  in popular culture are the handful of nuts who really believe aliens are hovering over our nuclear sites, or slowly moldering in a morgue at Area 51.  Think of these people as the detritus of our popular discourse. These are, after all, the sort who don’t quite grasp metaphors.

All of which is to say that some things are completely predictable.  People who see little green men inspecting missile silos, for example.  And the press conference ending with lots of snickering. There other questions though.  For example, how does the story end about the civilization that acquired the means to its own destruction?

Well, you’ll have to watch to the movie!