Counting On The Alien Life Discovery Game-Changing Effect

In Gaza, Palestinians and Israelis are lobbing rockets and missiles at each others’ homes.  In Syria and Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites are murdering and beheading each other.  In Africa, Boko Haram continues its campaign of religious-based slaughter and kidnapping.  In central Asia, sectarian and tribal animosities have produced a wave of bombings and violence.  And in central America, conditions apparently are so bad that tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have traveled hundreds of miles in a bid to cross the border into the U.S.

That’s why the best news of the last week was the announcement by NASA scientists that they believe that, within 20 years, humans will be able to confirm the existence of alien life.  They believe that current telescope technology, and new devices like the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite that will launch in 2017 and the James Webb Space Telescope that will launch in 2018, will allow us to detect the presence of liquid water and indications of life on other moons and planets in our solar system and elsewhere in the universe.  Could the scientists be wrong?  Certainly . . . but the rapid advancements in planet discoveries and related detection technologies make their prediction plausible.

Science fiction writers have long posited that the discovery of alien life would have a unifying effect on the fractured world of humanity.  Such a discovery, they theorize, would cause humans to realize that the tribal, ethnic, religious, and political differences between them are trivial in comparison to the differences between humans and other intelligent life forms.  The ancient animosities would end and all of humanity would band together and venture out into the galaxy on vehicles like the starship Enterprise.

Is it really possible that a discovery that humans are not alone might have such a game-changing effect?  It seems far-fetched that anything could alter the benighted mindsets of religious fanatics who want to enslave women or restore medieval caliphates, or penetrate the rigid ideologies of people who cling to tribal or sectarian hatreds that are centuries old.  But, after decades of experience, we know that other approaches — like countless peace talks, the toppling of governments, the expenditure of billions of dollars in aid and training and infrastructure improvement, and the issuance of toothless UN Security Council resolutions — don’t get at the core problems.

Sure, counting on the alien discovery game-changing effect may be pinning our hopes on an improbable scenario.  As we read about an angry and bitterly divided world, however, it may be all we’ve got.

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Iraq Goes To Hell

The news from the Middle East is pretty much all bad these days.  The latest troubling developments have happened in Iraq, where an Islamic militant group has made enormous gains in recent days and the Iraqi government seems to be teetering on the brink.

The militant group of extremist followers of the Sunni branch of the Islamic faith is called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS for short, because the Levant is another name for Syria).  They seek a fundamentalist Islamic state that spans parts of Iraq and Syria.  In Syria, they are fighting to topple the Assad government; in Iraq, they’ve captured the second-largest city, Mosul, another key city, Tikrit, and are threatening to move on Baghdad.  Accounts indicate that the Iraqi Army performed poorly in the fighting.

The Obama Administration seems to have been caught off guard by the rapid deterioration of the security situation in Iraq.  President Obama said yesterday that the United States would help the Iraqi government and had “not ruled anything out,” but also said that the situation should serve as a wake-up call for the current Iraqi government, which is accused of excluding Sunnis in favor of Shiites.  The White House later clarified that the President was speaking of air support for the Iraqi government and that the United States was not considering sending ground troops in to shore up Iraqi forces.

There’s going to be a lot of second-guessing about how the United States has dealt with Iraq in recent years.  Some Republicans have already resurrected criticism of how the Obama Administration handled negotiations for a status of forces agreement several years ago and did not keep any American troops in Iraq. It is hard not to be sick at the thought that the hard-won gains and relative peace achieved through the deaths of thousands of American soldiers who fought to topple the Sadaam Hussein government and then beat back the insurgency might be lost.  No one wants American deaths to be in vain.  Even worse, there are reports that the head of ISIS was in American custody in Iraq for a number of years but was released in 2009, even though he was believed to have been involved in torture and executions.

At this point, however, the issue is how to deal with the situation that currently exists.  President Obama has touted Iraq as a foreign policy success precisely because it has been a secular democracy.  If ISIS is successful in establishing a radical Sunni state that controls some of the most oil-rich territory in the world, and then engages in clashes with Shiite majority governments in the region, it could destabilize the entire Middle East and establish another haven for terrorists.  That prospect is alarming, and we need to figure out a way to prevent it from happening.