Sunday, 3 Mar 2024

Opinion | U.F.O.s and Other Unsolved Mysteries of Our Time

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By Ross Douthat

Opinion Columnist

Sometime very soon, one hopes, the Biden administration will attempt to explain to the American people what they think our fighters shot down over Lake Huron and northern Canada and off Alaska, be they balloons or drones or something somewhat stranger. If that happens, we will take a meaningful step toward solving a longstanding, conspiracy-shadowed mystery: What, exactly, are all the unidentified flying objects — sorry, sorry — unidentified aerial phenomena that our military keeps encountering in the skyfields above planet Earth?

But maybe it won’t be as big a step as one might hope. Maybe some of the debris won’t be found at all (as the administration is now hinting) or we won’t fully identify some of the objects. Maybe the government will classify the details, or the‌ objects will be officially identified as drones or balloons but their origins will remain uncertain. Maybe the takeaway will just be that we have very little idea of what goes on in our own skies, making more outlandish theories seem, if anything, more credible than they did a few weeks ago.

This would fit one of the patterns of our era, which is what you might call the incomplete reveal. Sometimes a phenomenon goes from being the subject of crank theories and sub rosa conversations to being more mainstream, but without actually being fully explained or figured out. Or sometimes a controversy takes center stage for a little while, a great deal seems to hang upon the answer, and then it isn’t resolved and seems to get forgotten. What’s at stake in these kinds of cases isn’t a conspiracy theory (though they may give rise to them) but a question or a secret — something that’s acknowledged to matter, that’s theoretically knowable, but that slips away from reach.

The U.A.P. ‌ ‌story so far has been an obvious example. ‌In the last few years the government and the media have finally acknowledged the existence of a genuinely strange phenomenon. But there hasn’t been sustained mainstream pressure (because that would be too weird and paranoid) on public officials or institutions to get closer to the bottom of what’s going on.

What are some other examples? Glad you asked. Here’s a list:

Who blew up the Nord Stream pipelines?

Last week, Seymour Hersh published a story on his Substack alleging that U.S. Navy divers planted the explosives that sabotaged gas pipelines linking Russia to Germany. There are good reasons to doubt the story, starting with its apparent reliance on a single source and working through various factual and plausibility issues. Hersh is famous for breaking important stories and also for getting other stories badly wrong.

Questions about the pandemic

When will the pandemic end? We asked three experts — two immunologists and an epidemiologist — to weigh in on this and some of the hundreds of other questions we’ve gathered from readers recently, including how to make sense of booster and test timing, recommendations for children, whether getting covid is just inevitable and other pressing queries.

How concerning are things like long covid and reinfections? That’s a difficult question to answer definitely, writes the Opinion columnist Zeynep Tufekci, because of the lack of adequate research and support for sufferers, as well as confusion about what the condition even is. She has suggestions for how to approach the problem. Regarding another ongoing Covid danger, that of reinfections, a virologist sets the record straight: “There has yet to be a variant that negates the benefits of vaccines.”

How will the virus continue to change? As a group of scientists who study viruses explains, “There’s no reason, at least biologically, that the virus won’t continue to evolve.” From a different angle, the science writer David Quammen surveys some of the highly effective tools and techniques that are now available for studying Covid and other viruses, but notes that such knowledge alone won’t blunt the danger.

What could endemic Covid look like? David Wallace Wells writes that by one estimate, 100,000 Americans could die each year from the coronavirus. Stopping that will require a creative effort to increase and sustain high levels of vaccination. The immunobiologist Akiko Iwasaki writes that new vaccines, particular those delivered through the nose, may be part of the answer.

But somebody blew up the pipelines. Was it Russia? Parts of Western officialdom suggested as much at first, but after months of investigations we are still waiting for compelling evidence, or a compelling argument for why it would be in Moscow’s interest to make it much more difficult to quickly restart the flow of energy they are trying to use for blackmail. Was it the United States, acting to force Russia into a deeper isolation by weakening their immediate energy leverage over Europe? The Biden administration denies any involvement, and it would have been quite the act of recklessness for an administration that’s been very cautious about direct engagement with the Russians.

“In today’s increasingly transparent world,” the Carnegie Endowment’s Sergey Vakulenko wrote soon after the sabotage, the truth of whodunit “might not stay buried for long.” But many months later, we’ve got Hersh’s dubious claim of excavation and not much else.

What were Jeffrey Epstein’s secrets?

Set aside the did-he-kill-himself debate: More than three years after Epstein’s apparent suicide, it’s the larger mysteries about the predator-panderer that still hang unresolved. We don’t fully understand how he made his money; the story of his ascent, as an adviser to the clothing-retail mogul Leslie Wexner, still feels like a sketch with crucial details missing. We don’t fully understand why he received such leniency in his Bush-era go-round with law enforcement and the courts. Epstein “belonged to intelligence” — that’s how Alexander Acosta, the Florida prosecutor turned Trump administration secretary of labor, allegedly explained his own part in that leniency. But we still don’t know the truth about Epstein’s possible ties to our own government or others, how his alleged methods of blackmail and surveillance worked, and so on.

Also, speaking as someone with a cautious interest in outré spiritualities, I’d like to know more — or even just something — about the weird, temple-like structure on one of his private islands, whose inspiration and intended purposes is still obscure.

Did Covid-19 leak from a Chinese laboratory?

Here the obstacles to certain answers are obvious: The crucial evidence is controlled by an increasingly uncooperative authoritarian state; the scientific debate is shadowed by the vested interest that some of our own health-and-science institutions have in “gain of function” research; and the question has been entangled from the start with the Trump-era culture wars.

But imagine if, several years after a major earthquake struck Los Angeles or San Francisco, we still didn’t know whether it was a normal quake or a demolition accidentally induced by geological experiments conducted by a major geopolitical rival. That’s basically where we stand today with the entire pandemic, and our uncertainty about its origins is linked to crucial questions about the likelihood of future outbreaks, the wisdom and safety of publicly funded scientific research projects and, of course, our relationship to China. However much energy our institutions are putting into resolving this question, it seems like more would be a good idea.

What exactly happened between Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford?

This is a case where partisans on both sides are sure they know the answer, and everybody else has moved on — and maybe moving on is just the reasonable thing. But Ford’s partisans are still at work, convinced that what’s been lacking is a wider net, more allegations beyond hers: A documentary on the case from Doug Liman, the director of “Swingers” and “The Bourne Identity,” apparently focuses anew on allegations and alleged incidents from Kavanaugh’s time at Yale.

Whereas what I thought during the 2018 Senate hearings, and still think now, is that Ford’s initial accusation should be more amenable to focused investigation. Meaning that, whether Ford was telling the truth or lying or misremembering in some important way, we should be able to get at least a little more certainty from all of the different people who were connected to the alleged house party — from the names on Kavanaugh’s calendar to Ford’s own family to Kavanaugh and Ford’s mutual connections and more. I thought then that somebody in greater Georgetown knew more than what had been revealed, one way or another, and I still think that today.

At the very least, I would like to read the final F.B.I. report that Senators read before they voted, insufficient as it may have been.

And who knows — maybe I can find that report buried under an altar in Epstein’s temple, or attached to one of the strings that our pilots thought they saw dangling from the U.A.P. around Lake Huron just before they shot it down.

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