It seems like the United States and Canada have been a balloon-shooting gallery in the last week. It also seems like we’re starting to live in some 1950s or ’60s sci-fi movie, with unidentified flying objects, presumably sent by Martians, sneaking around overhead.
The objects and their violent ends seem to have unhinged the looniest among us.
But it’s made me — and I suspect lots of other people — do a lot of thinking about assumptions and reactions and unanticipated consequences.
For one thing — and I guess this dates back to my old habit of watching old movies — an impeccably top-hatted David Niven has been in my mind’s eye, and “Around the World in 80 Days,” the song from that 1956 film, which I learned I have no idea when or where, has been in my ears, as I’ve remembered long-forgotten bits from that movie. And I have just learned, to my surprise — thank you, Chinese balloon makers — that Jules Verne’s novel did not include balloons. Who knew?
According to the New York Times’ Daily — the podcast that speaks sweet, sweet reason into our early-morning ears, often delivered over odd, ping-y, obstructive music, with a sometimes formulaic on-the-other-hand structure, but still is almost always smart and interesting — there are many possible reasons for the objects.
Yes, the biggest one, without any question, was a Chinese balloon. The Chinese have been sending balloons over the United States for some time; this seems to have been the first time that the public has heard about it. That balloon was duly shot down over the Atlantic, and its debris was picked up and is being studied.
And then there were those other shot-down flying objects. Yes, the Times said, they could have been sent by extraterrestrials — but that’s not very likely. They could have been spyware, sent by a number of friends or foes.
Or apparently they could have been flying garbage, dropped from rockets or abandoned, probably long-forgotten high-school science experiments.
It seems that there are many filters that scientists can use when they look at the sky, and they’re using increasingly finer-grained ones. (This is not the language scientists would use, I know. Please forgive me.) That means that they see more.
Some of what they see might lead to a growing understanding of the world, some might reveal our enemies’ tricks, and some might be junk.
When we shoot these things down, sometimes we can retrieve them and learn from them, but there’s a strong argument that the longer we let them remain in the sky, the more information we can glean from them.
If we shoot them down over land, they’re easier to retrieve — but the likelihood of hurting people on the ground grows much more serious. How many people are we willing to risk? And which people? (Surely not us!)
And exactly how metaphoric is all of this? Or, to be clear, exactly how much metaphoric can anyone possibly get without being laughed out of the room?
The more closely we look, the more we see. The more we learn, the more dangerous the world can seem, and at times really can be. And the more we learn, the safer we can seem, and at times really can be.
The world is full of unidentified flying — and crawling, and lying stock still — things. Some are dangerous. Some are not. They inflame our imaginations, and that too can be good, or bad, or both.
The world is complicated and confusing. We can see danger, or risk, or opportunity, or all those things.
It’s really up to us.