Would Anyone Be Surprised if Aliens Landed?

This past weekend saw the release of the third installment in the Men in Black series starring Will Smith as one of the titular interstellar immigration officers. Last month, Smith and his family visited the White House as guests of President Obama during the Easter holiday. While there, Smith’s son Jaden took the opportunity to ask the president if aliens actually exist. The Raw Story reported:

“I was like, ‘Jaden, do not ask the president,’” Smith continued. “So we get into the Situation Room and Jaden gets the look in his eyes and he leans over and says, ‘Dad, what’s my punishment [if I ask]?’ And I was like, ‘Jaden, do not.’ And you know, Barack is talking about the Situation Room and Jaden says, ‘Excuse me, Mr. President.’ I was like, ‘Hey, Barack, man…’ And Barack said, ‘Don’t tell me.’ And in perfect form, and this is why he’s the president, and he stopped and looked at Jaden and said, ‘The aliens, right?’”

“And he said, ‘I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of extraterrestrials, but I can tell you if there had been a top-secret meeting and if there would have had to have been a discussion about it, it would have taken place in this room.’”

What if the president did confirm the existence of otherworldly beings? Better yet, what if they landed on the White House lawn? Would anyone be surprised?

Since the advent of UFOs and extraterrestrials in popular culture the assumption has always been that the arrival of real live interstellar visitors would result in a breakdown of social order. Such seemed confirmed by the 1938 panic induced by Orson Welles’ radio dramatization of H.G Wells’ War of the Worlds. Stefan Lovgen recalls:

Thousands of people, believing they were under attack by Martians, flooded newspaper offices and radio and police stations with calls, asking how to flee their city or how they should protect themselves from “gas raids.” Scores of adults reportedly required medical treatment for shock and hysteria.

Of course, in 1938, the notion of Martians attacking from another planet was itself quite alien. Mass media was new. People were not accustomed to fantastic narratives, and certainly did not expect to hear them presented like news over the radio. Much as the previous generation marveled at the motion picture, reportedly leaping out of their chairs to escape Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, listeners to War of the Worlds had no disbelief to suspend. They simply took what they heard at face value.

Today we live in a media-saturated culture. And much of that media is saturated with aliens. Will Smith alone has starred in four space invader films, contributing to a genre which never seems to get old. Is it therefore any wonder that a 2010 Reuters poll found that 20% of people worldwide believe that aliens walk among us?

With aliens and UFOs so prominent in the public consciousness, would their arrival or official disclosure of their presence really shock the world? In many ways, we seem to have braced ourselves for the news. The Vatican addressed the possibility a few years back. Files declassified by the British government in recent years indicate that law enforcement and the military have taken the potential threat of alien invasion seriously. Public and private institutions seem increasingly positioned to roll with the revelation.

However, this author doubts there will be any such test of public order soon. As The Raw Story goes on to reference in their article about Mr. Smith’s trip to Washington, the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy issued an official denial last September, stating that the United States government “has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race.”

There are good reasons to believe that to be true. Aside from the lack of compelling evidence to the contrary, human nature is such that disclosure tends to prevail over secrecy. The potential to profit from knowledge of extraterrestrial life and technology could not be effectively contained, as the vast business in UFO novelty and lore attests. Governments just aren’t that good at keeping earth-shattering secrets, and would benefit far more from the politicization of first contact –presented either as a common enemy or an inspiration to unity — than by keeping the reality of alien life a secret.

Nevertheless, true believers go on unswayed and Hollywood magicians continue to imagine a universe where we are not alone. Given the trend, if contact is made, chances are it will be far less dramatic than the War of the Worlds panic of 1938.