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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Dreamland: Inside Area 51

It covers several sprawling square miles of ground in arid southern Nevada. Ringed by notices which carry dire warnings to trespassers, it is known officially as the Nevada Test and Training Range. To the several thousand Federal Government employees who work there it is, with a touch of whimsical irony, known as Dreamland. To the public, and to conspiracy theorists the world over, it is better-known by the number of the land grid that it occupies, which carries the simple designation of Area 51.

Beyond the stern warning signs is a facility that ostensibly is (or was) used to test new technology in military aircraft: reason enough for every employee on the site to be subject to the Internal Security Act – and also reason enough for the Central Intelligence Agency to have a finger deep in this particular pie. The adjacent white expanse of Groom Lake – which is not a lake but a dry salt flat – makes a natural surface to exploit as a runway, and the various large covered hangars and other peripheral buildings keep their secrets safe, both from the prying eyes of powerful binoculars viewing from the surrounding hills and from digital visitors on [1]Google Earth.

Since its inception in the 1950’s, rumours have persisted that the base is really an elaborate cover for more clandestine activities, as bizarre as they are secretive. These rumours claim that the base is really a holding ground for captured Unidentified Flying Objects – UFO’s – and more specifically (and perhaps more sensationally), for their alien crews. There are two alternative ways of viewing these stories. A lack of available firm knowledge about something creates a vacuum into which speculation naturally rushes. Prompted by the veil of secrecy surrounding the site, and boosted by claims of sightings of unknown aerial craft in the vicinity, the rumour mills began to grind. But the opposite cause could equally be true: that these stories were actually generated by the CIA itself as a smokescreen for the secret military activities which take place there.

You can read about these [2]claims in depth on any number of conspiracy theory websites, so merely repeating them here would serve little purpose. My own focus is different, and has more to do with the way in which smoke can be generated without fire. In spite of all the speculation, and the whistle blowing by [3]former employees, not a scrap of hard evidence has emerged that would give solid support to these theories. And yet they not only persist, but are believed in passionately by their adherents: aliens are on our planet, and they are being held under conditions of top security at Area 51. Why, even the President himself has met them!

Where is the truth in all this? It is impossible to say. An alleged smuggled-out grainy black-and-white film purporting to show an autopsy of an extra-terrestrial is only ever going to be circumstantial. Is it a clever (or a clumsy) fake? Who knows? Common sense might say ‘yes’, but what fascinates me is the way in which the human mind naturally clings to something, is willing to go on believing in that thing, even when there is no supporting evidence to back it up. The obvious parallel is with religion. Religion has to be about faith – the faith to believe in something for which there is no clear evidence.

Area 51 on Google Earth. Click on the image to view it screen size.

In the Book of [4]Exodus we read how Moses encountered a voice that spoke to him from a bush which, though burning, was not consumed. But how do we know about this? Moses was the only one present, so any credence we give to the story is based on hearsay. Hearsay …and the faith which is generated by the simple fact that the story appears in scripture. Place the story in a secular context, and the very people who believe passionately in the actuality of the story would dismiss it as the deluded ramblings of an old Bronze Age shepherd, whose actual existence is itself a matter of belief. They might still give it value as a story, but its actuality would carry no more weight than we would give to such a story as Odysseus’ defeat of the giant cyclops Polyphemus. [5]Homer might thrill us with his storytelling, but not for a moment do we imagine that this incident actually happened.

Belief without evidence is smoke without fire, whether that belief is in the existence of detained aliens at Area 51, or in a Bronze Age shepherd listening to a bush that talked to him. But such belief still ironically depends on the fires of faith to keep it burning – and on the existence of Dreamland.

[1] For those with the free Google Earth program, the coordinates are: 37°14′06″N 115°48′40″W. Just paste these coordinates into the search box and you'll be flown there!

[2] These include ‘reverse technology’ study of captured UFO’s (that is: studying such craft in an attempt to duplicate their alien technology for military purposes), attempts to communicate with surviving aliens, etc.

[3] The controversial testimony provided by Bob Lazar is probably the best-known example of this.

[4] Exodus 3:1-5. Please also see my post The Burning Bush. Yes, I am aware that Moses is traditionally considered to be the author of the first five books of the Old Testament, but this is attributed tradition, and has no basis in scholarship. Neither is there any historically independent verification that Moses actually existed. He might have been an amalgamation of various such characters from that time. There are enough textual and stylistic inconsistencies apparent in these texts (even within the first few verses of Genesis) to postulate various unknown authors for these writings.

[5] It occurs to me that a curious parallel exists between Homer and Moses: they both were presumed to have lived some 3,000 years ago, and they both were the presumed authors of texts which tradition associates with their name. Scholastically, however, neither author can be proven to have existed, and the texts ascribed to them could well be an amalgamation of the works of various unknown writers from that time. 

The second image is adapted from a photo by X51. The smaller sign reads:
Restricted Area
It is unlawful to enter this area without permission of the Installation Commander.
Sec. 21, Internal Security Act of 1950; 50 U.S.C.797
While on this Installation all personnel and the property under their control are subject to search.
Use of deadly force authorized.

The third image is from The fourth image shows the view north towards Groom Lake, with various hangars and buildings as seen on Google Earth, photo by Digital Globe, image by Landsat.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Hawkeye, Moses and the Right Stuff

Glancing at my bookshelf a couple of evenings ago, my eye fell upon a great American literary classic: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. It set me to thinking about the moral compass of such narratives. For all his ups and downs, Hawkeye, Fenimore Cooper’s existential frontiersman, strives to ‘do the right thing’ in the situations in which he finds himself. At certain moments in the narrative such striving lifts him to heroic stature, and his example lifts us up with him.

The moral compass of this work and other such titles as John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, or Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old man and the Sea, or even Mark Twain’s [1]The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is never in doubt. Their central characters, however embattled through circumstances, remain basically good and decent. Indeed, guided by his own moral compass, Hawkeye moves mountains in his attempts to affect a rescue of the story’s victims of kidnap. 

Now let’s take Fenimore Cooper’s protagonist and place him on a very different frontier. Could we imagine Hawkeye willing to kill a child, or handing over a young girl in his care to be raped, or overseeing a massacre of women and children? If the answer is ‘no’ – and it has to be – then what makes such possibilities, not merely unlikely, but in the minds of we the readers, completely out of the question? We take our lead from the narrative itself, which gives us every indication of Hawkeye, not just having decent moral standards, but of adhering to those standards. In short: he lives by his own innate code of moral values.

My eye travels to another title on my shelf. Four of its characters we already have encountered in [2]posts on this blog. Could we imagine these characters being prepared to kill their own children, or offering their own daughters up to be gang-raped by a mob, or directing a massacre of defenceless women and children? The answer has to be ‘yes’- because all these events actually take place within the narrative. The characters are respectively Abraham, Jephthar, Lot and Moses, and the book is of course my own copy of the King James Bible.

Now we are confronted with a paradox. On the one hand we have Hawkeye, the frontiersman with the moral right stuff. On the other, we have four names whose moral compass is clearly awry – at least when compared to those of our frontiersman. How is it then possible that these names are held up as examples of ‘doing the right thing’: in this case, of being obedient to God’s will? Abraham is prepared to kill his own son. Jephthar actually does kill his own daughter. Lot actually does offer his two virgin daughters to a street mob to be raped. Moses actually does command his men to kill many defenceless women and children whose lives had previously been spared.

The question has to be: why do we not condemn these four, whose actions are so clearly reprehensible, even inhuman? Why, against all reason, does an aura of virtue apparently cling to them? There is only one answer which presents itself: because they are in scripture. Hawkeye, on the other hand, has to make do with a secular context. And yet all our instincts tell us that, were there ever to come a hypothetical face-off between, say, Hawkeye and Lot, then the frontiersman would view the Sodomite as being worthy of nothing but his contempt, as flawed in his values as the treacherous Huron Magua from his own world, who, like Lot, was fully prepared to betray the trust which others had placed in him.

There might be someone, somewhere, who can clearly explain to me the reasons why the moral compass of such characters from scripture is worthy and exemplary – and indeed, why God’s also is, if these actions were in his name. There might be, but I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, I’m happy enough to take Hawkeye, the embattled frontiersman with the moral right stuff, as being more worthy of my emulation and more deserving of my respect than such flawed scriptural luminaries as Abraham, Jephthar, Lot and Moses.

[1] I seem to have chosen four American authors as my examples. You can probably think of as many British, European and other authors whose characters exemplify moral decency. Heck, I can even think of the characters in Bram Stoker’s classic gothic tale Dracula – Jonathan and Mina Harker, John Seward and Abraham Van Helsing – whose moral decency drives them to strive their utmost in their struggle against the notorious Count. Would Van Helsing have offered his own daughter up to be raped? Just saying.

[2] If you wish to independently check for yourself that the Bible really does say what I claim for it here, these posts together with their chapter-and-verse citations are:
For Abraham: Abraham, Isaac and a Stressed Out Ram, (Genesis 22:1-18).
For Lot: Lot and His Daughters: The Inside Story (Genesis 19:1-38).
For Moses and Jephthar: Frontier Justice in the Promised Land (Numbers 31:7-18, and Judges 11:29-40).

The two top images are adapted from paintings by Zdeněk Burian, the second two images are adapted from paintings by N.C. Wyeth.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Abraham, Isaac and a Stressed-out Ram

If ever a ram was in the wrong place at the wrong time, it was this one. It already was having a rather rough day, having somehow managed to entangle its horns in a thicket. With the desperation which any animal feels when it knows that it is stuck fast, it must have been feeling pretty stressed out as it struggled to free itself. But for this particular ram, a day which already had begun badly was about to get a whole lot worse.

This is, naturally enough, how things must have seemed from the ram’s side of things. From the point of view of the two humans who appeared on the scene, this particular ram was - quite literally – heaven sent. The two humans were Abraham and his beloved [1]only son Isaac, and they were there on that mountainside because God had commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to him as a [2]burnt offering. This story in [3]Genesis is traditionally put forward as a shining example of ultimate obedience to God’s will – although any parent will fully appreciate the mental anguish that Abraham must have endured upon hearing God’s command.

And Isaac? Well, young Isaac does not actually know of God’s – or his father’s – intentions. And neither does his father tell him. On the way up the mountain he actually innocently carries the load of wood for his own funeral pyre on his back. One wonders how willingly he would have shouldered the load (if at all) had he known that he would play the central role in the coming sacrifice. But clearly he has his suspicions, because he asks his father where the sacrificial animal is. To which Abraham guardedly replies that the Lord will provide. Which, considering that Abraham already knows that (as far as he was aware) the Lord already had provided, is a cruelly cryptic response, to say the least.

But at what exact point in the story does Isaac sus the awful truth? We are only told that, when the place of sacrifice is reached, Abraham ‘bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood’. Well, if poor Isaac didn’t know before, he sure must have tumbled to the way things are by now. But what happened? Did he struggle when he felt the rope tighten around his arms? Did he feel a terrible sense of betrayal at the way in which his father had tricked him into accompanying him? We are not told. What we know is that, just as Abraham raises his knife to do the deed, the angel of the Lord stays his hand and draws his attention instead to the ram.

Ah, yes… the ram. It was, apparently, ‘behind’ Abraham the whole time – and presumably struggling to break free from the thicket. Did Abraham neither see it nor hear its struggles during the whole episode? Apparently not. Of course, the reason might well have been because Isaac was at the time screaming his lungs out in anguished protest, both at his father's betrayal of trust and at the realization of his own unexpected mortality, which, though unbiblical in sentiment, would certainly be plausible as a normal human response to the situation.

So the ram is predictably sacrificed in Isaac’s stead, and we are left with a hatful of questions. What does this story say about Abraham, who was quite prepared, not merely to sacrifice his son, but to trick him into attending his own funeral service? And what does it say about a God who was fully prepared to let a father think that he must kill his own son, and then at the supreme moment turns around and says that it was all just a test?

This story has become an irresistible soft target for scripture’s detractors, with its apparently bizarre standards of morality and its flirting with human sacrifice in God’s name. But what I find disturbing on a more profound level is the way in which those who accept scriptural authority seek to justify the events. I have just read on one such [4]website the statement which urges us while reading this story to remember that “sacrificing children was neither against the law nor uncommon especially in the land of Canaan.” As if that in some obscure way makes things okay. It does not, and if you think that it does, then somewhere along the line you have made a sacrifice of your own – to what is morally and humanly decent – for the sake of your beliefs.

Please Note:
If you who are reading this imagine that such a misguided and reprehensible action as sacrificing one's own child to one's deity belongs to a safely remote past, then consider this: My wife has drawn my attention to a column in today's newspaper (Trouw, 7 July 2013) in which the communications advisor Ton Planken (right) underscores the situation here in the Netherlands' Bible Belt. Their religious beliefs dissuade strict Calvinists from having their children vaccinated. In the last outbreak of measles here in 2,000, three children from such families died - each one an easily preventable death had those children received the available vaccination. With the first outbreak since that time now current, one hundred and sixty one children in the region have already fallen ill. One holds one's breath to see how many children will this time be offered up in the name of the religious beliefs of their parents. The full article in Dutch can be read here: Measles and Human Sacrifices.
Note added 20 January 2014: I overlooked adding this note at the time, but one girl died of measles in the area in this new outbreak - another easily-preventable death as a direct result of the parents' religious convictions. Were it in my power I would hold them culpable for death by neglect. 

[1] It is puzzling that Genesis describes Isaac in these terms when we also are told by scripture that he in fact had an older brother named Ishmael.  

[2] A burnt offering was any corpse of a human or carcass of an animal which, having been slaughtered, was then ritually burned so that the smoke would waft heavenwards to please the deity in whose name he, she or it had been killed. Please see my post Frontier Justice in the Promised Land for an example of actual human sacrifice in God’s name. Yes, as related in Judges 11:29-40, it was another infanticide: in this case of a father sacrificing his daughter.  

[3] Genesis 22: 1-18.


Top image: Abraham and Isaac, by Anthony van Dyck.
Other images: Abraham and Isaac, by Gerhardt Willem von Reutern.