Last evening I watched the movie “Arrival” starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker. In the film, 12 alien spacecraft mysteriously appear on Earth at various locations including the United States, Russia, the ocean off the coast of China, Sudan, Pakistan, Denmark, Japan, Sierra-Leone, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, and Australia. I have always been a space nerd am a believer in the existence of advanced intelligent extraterrestrial life in the universe simply based on the statistical probabilities but do not hold any illusions about the reality of past, present, or future alien visitations to our lonely planet. The facts are that the vastness of space and the limitations of the speed of light render the idea of true inter-galactic travel truly challenging to any intelligent species. Therefore, should we ever encounter otherworldly visitors to Earth we can assume that they are far more advanced than anything we could imagine at this stage of our human technological and scientific development.
Interestingly, the core concept in the movie story line revolved around language and our attempts at understanding the aliens’ motivations. The movie is fraught with tension as the language barrier and the huge intellectual disparity between them and us frustrates our attempts to determine whether they are friend or foe despite the aliens never once displaying a single overt act of aggression. I won’t spoil the ending of the movie but it did make me wonder what would actually happen if the same scenario unfolded today.
It occurred to me that the national reaction to the aliens would most certainly be one driven by personality. Contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence on Earth would be the single most important event in human history and there would be an overwhelming sense of uncertainty, fear, and hysteria among the world populations but the decisions on how to interact with the aliens would lie squarely in the capable hands of our national leaders and their closest advisors. Based on my observations of human behavior over the years and that of practically every government in existence, it would be no surprise to expect an initial military response in the earliest moments of contact but what about after that? Wouldn’t we want and expect our government’s leaders to react with calm deliberateness and guarded optimism? Perhaps the aliens want to help humanity or are themselves in some terrible need which brought them to our planet.
These concepts started me along a thought exercise of how we might predict our current administration and chief executive to react to such first contact based on his own stated policies on defense, space, and yes . . . immigration. First of all, there is a plan for first contact. I couldn’t find a specific plan during my internet searches but having been retired from the U.S. Army and coming from the intelligence community I can say with some certainty that somewhere, in a secured facility behind 18-inch steel vault doors, sitting on a book shelf is a big-ass white plastic three-ring binder labelled “TOP SECRET” and a title along the lines of National Extraterrestrial First Contact Response Contingency Plan. Within this dusty tome will reside the expert advice and detailed plans compiled by select experts on exactly how we are to proceed. Those consulted will have included astrophysicists, astronomers, aeronautic engineers, computer scientists, planetary scientists, linguistic experts, sociologists, psychologists, epidemiologists, diplomats and military strategists. In the event of the alien scenario, the book would be taken down, dusted off, and shuttled to the White House (or some subterranean nuclear war shelter deep beneath the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia) where the President would be briefed on the appropriate actions to take. President Trump will not read this book.
As we have already seen in the last month of President Trump’s administration, The Donald does not have a stellar track record of considering and/or accepting the sagacity of subject matter experts and he has displayed an open and vocal disdain for science throughout his campaign and up to this day. His bizarre and unreasonable contempt for empirical scientific data is no more evident than in his clear disdain for the Environmental Protection Agency and the flat-out refusal to accept global climate change as a man-made reality – a fact based in part by data provided by NASA research. Instead, Trump relies on “alternative facts” as his default modus operandi when making assertions which fly in the face of the “actual facts.”
Trump does, however, seem to express a deep interest in the United States’ space program when, during his inauguration speech, he told the world “We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow.” Positive right? Not so much. In fact, Trump has stated that the cornerstone of his space policy is to expand low-Earth orbit science to the commercial sector and to relegate NASA on to deep space / intra-solar system exploration. Ostensibly he claims his desired shift in who does what as a means of simultaneously stimulating economic growth while “allowing” NASA to better concentrate on what he feels should be their primary focus. This is little more than a thinly veiled attempt to push NASA out of the Earth sciences whose data is an enormous inconvenience to Trump’s plans.
How about Trump’s stance on global issues? Certainly, an event as “yuge” as alien first contact around the world would require actions made on the agreed consensus of other world leaders. Certainly, the President respects the international community at large and would want to engage them when considering how to proceed. Weeeelllllll. . .
While Trump has shown a dislike for the United Nations, one might argue he would be more receptive to the opinions of leaders from a military alliance given his obvious love of generals – perhaps NATO? Well, here again his own comments tell us all we need to know “I said a long time ago that NATO had problems . . . Number one it was obsolete, because it was designed many, many years ago”. Oh boy. . .
What about immigration? Aliens coming here to Earth, and America in particular, must take into account something of his stance on immigration. Do I really even have to belabor this point and cite references? I don’t think so. Trump is an extreme xenophobe who hates what/who he doesn’t understand. From his infamous dream of The Wall and recent immigration ban with “extreme vetting” to his support of Brexit, The Donald has displayed time and time again his absolute intolerance for foreigners and a desire to eschew the idea of the USA as an equal partner in an international cooperative context.
We do know that he professes to love the military and has filled all of his key national defense positions including the National Security Advisor, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of Homeland Security, with active duty and retired generals. In all fairness, I think Generals Mattis (SecDef) and McMaster (NSA) have a reputation of level-headedness and providing truth to leadership and might well advise against aggression without due cause. I am not yet certain how General Kelly (SecDHS) would respond. However, we also know that Trump really and truly only takes his own advice once he has made up his mind on an issue.
Considering all these factors has informed my speculation on what would transpire: It would be an unequivocal and unmitigated disaster. I believe Trump would completely overreact to the appearance of an advanced alien species and would act unilaterally in a military attack against the visitors; at least the ones in America. I believe he would disregard all opinion and advice from the scientific community and take failed communications attempts or alien recalcitrance as some indication of impending aggression and the nukes would fly. In such a scenario, one would hope that the aliens were prepared for such a reaction and we could count on their patience, restraint, and forbearance. Of course, anyone possessed of technology so advanced as to conquer the problems of time and space to get to our planet will be able to effortlessly counter such an attack and hopefully give us another chance; because it would most certainly be the case that such an advanced species would also possess the means by which to eliminate every single human on the planet.
Of course, this thought exercise is statistically a moot point but I believe a salient one. The argument illustrates how we as a nation should be concerned with the powers held by the chief executive of this country when it comes to situations where he alone can make crucial and irrevocable decisions which might impact us all – U. S. citizens and those from every country in every corner of the Earth.