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: When Aliens Land in Washington - Will Bush Kill them?

W. Barada Nikto: The Way Bush Stands Still
Dan Schneider

The other day I bought the DVD of one of my favorite all-time films: The Day The Earth Stood Still. In watching it I was struck by how relevant this sci-fi classic from over 50 years ago is to today’s political milieu. In brief, a flying saucer lands in Washington, D.C. Its occupant is a creature that looks human enough, named Klaatu (Michael Rennie). He is injured by fearful humans as the military surrounds the spacecraft. He is rescued by an all-powerful robot named Gort, who vaporizes the military machinery.

Klaatu decides to infiltrate human society under the pseudonym Carpenter and takes up residence at a local boarding house, where he meets a widow named Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) who has a 10 year old son Bobby (Billy Gray of later Father Knows Best fame). In short, Klaatu is hunted down and killed by the military, then resurrected by Gort, who is aided by Helen, who knows the phrase that can control Gort: Klaatu Barada Nikto. Upon leaving Earth Klaatu issues an edict: either humans can change their ways or they will be exterminated if they spread their nuclear terror to the stars. Klaatu has only been an emissary from an organization called the United Planets. Gort is merely one of many all-powerful robots that police the UP registry and battle warring instinct with extermination- a policy all UP members submit to. With this knowledge Klaatu and Gort leave Earth to ponder its fate.

Of course, the film has provoked many philosophical, ethical, and political salvos through the years. Made during the early years of the Cold War its symbolism was obvious, and its ‘message’ later became standard fare for much of the early ‘real’ UFO lore, depicted by the ‘Contactees’ of that era. But, its message still resonates today, in the post-Cold War restiveness of dying religious Fundamentalism’s death throes. Especially since Rennie plays a near-Christ-like character.

It has also been vociferously attacked as ‘liberal’ propaganda. Many Leftists of the day saw the film as a plea against the insanity of the nuclear arms race, which was insane- not because of the arms race mentality, but because total annihilation could occur by error, and not intent. Rightists pointed out that the ‘peace’ offered by Klaatu, Gort, and the UP comes only if humanity is either content to remain earthbound, or submit to the tyranny of the Gortian robocops. Counterarguments span range from the social compact gambit- i.e.- that while Earth is our home and we can do what we like the universal society at large has every right to set up its own laws and penalties. After all, we are free to parade around naked in our own homes, but not in public- to the sanity defense- that any society advanced enough to discover interstellar travel will likely create weaponry capable of planet destruction, therefore only a preemptive ban and enforcement can work.

Yet, there does seem something amiss with Klaatu’s UP. Klaatu shows he has the power to utterly immobilize human machinery (hence the film’s title) yet it is oblivion or else- no degrees of shading, such as ‘we’ll take away all your nuclear toys if you humans are bad’. It’s Armageddon or compliance. The UP has no problems with hypocrisy or ‘benevolent’ dictatorship. If we are too violent, by UP standards, they will counter with the ultimate violence. This is their law, and will be applied without any research into why humans fight: exploitation, racism, sociology, and ideological differences as reasons are all equally wrong, even if in self defense. The query rises- is peace without freedom a virtue?

It has been counter-argued that there is such a thing as limited freedom- we do not have the right to infringe upon others’ rights with our own. Klaatu claims the only freedom the UP has given up is the freedom of violence. Violence is the only freedom that is policed by Gort and his robotic brethren. The film has thus been seen as posing the question How would society function if disputes had to be resolved without violence? And it’s a good query. Obviously, repression would end since it is dependent upon such. Even Klaatu admits that the UP is not perfect and could still relapse to violence- that’s why they created the robots.

Yet, the fact is that Klaatu is from a truly alien race- all of the speculating about him assumes he has human motives- but he is an alien. He looks human, but that is just a guise. How humanoid is he? To him his threat may be just as ‘humane’ as declawing a cat is to us. Yet, I think of this old film’s relevance in the post-9/11 period. How little has changed and how relevant the film is obviates most of the nonsensical paranoia of the Patriot Act and its backers, who seem to feel that the surrender of liberty is the price to pay for peace. How Klaatuvian of President Bush and his band it is to 'by fiat' declare this over the public, not just here but globally- ‘You’re either with us or agin’ us!’ As far as we know from the film Klaatu is telling the truth, but as we’ve seen with W & Co. lies are often just beneath such a façade. I think back to the famous Twilight Zone episode 'To Serve Man' where equally seemingly benevolent aliens come to Earth, end war and famine, only to use humanity as livestock.

Is Bush as Klaatu genuine or not? With each ex-member of his Administration that comes forward it is painfully obvious that Klaatu could legitimately be seen as an oppressor. Yet, the reason Bush seems destined to lose his job this November is because many conservatives are jumping off the bandwagon- the UP is in civil war. Some of the member planets are choosing freedom over oppression. What some saw in the film as liberal propaganda has turned into conservative hegemony run amok. How would Klaatu and the UP have dealt with the Fundy nutbags had they been in charge of the earth? These are people so brainwashed and delusional that they desire war. The invasion of Iraq was the best recruitment tool they could ask for. With that mindset old Klaatu would have unwittingly stirred up even more of what he came to end, rather than how the film actually ends. Sound familiar? Of course, Fundamentalists make up only a small portion of any group. Annihilation has to be total or it’s ineffective, but if total it’s probably unethical. Sometimes the sword fails to the pen, or some other similar metaphor. Strategic, or surgical, diplomacy or action is essential in such regions. If only Bush the Elder had taken out Saddam when he was 20 miles from Baghdad in ’91, and helped split the country up into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia nations, much of the 9/11 foment would have been avoided- not to mention if the dimwitted (Thank God The Bastard Is Dead!) Ronald Reagan had not helped train and arm Osama bin Laden to the teeth. It was Bush the Elder’s betrayal of the Iraqis he called upon to rise against Saddam in 1991 that is the reason we’ve earned the Iraqi distrust today.

Bush also is seen as Klaatu in that he has Messianic delusions and casts much of his greedy self-service in Christian terms. But, can Stone Age Hoodoo-ridden Fundamentalism rise to the challenge of this latter-day Klaatu the way the Earth did in the film? I doubt it because 1) it is based on fear and intimidation, therefore calling on the same in systems seeking to exterminate it and 2) the film was a film- art. The fact that there are so many levels of interpretation is testament to its greatness. Great art always asks questions, it rarely answers them. Reality is far more blunt. Hence W. Imagine if President Bush emerged from that saucer with Gort behind him all those years ago. I doubt if Patricia Neal would have even been able to utter W. Barada Nikto for the planet would have already been vaporized.
Is it too late to draft Michael Rennie for President?
(Better a dead one than a live Bush - Ed)
© Dan Schneider September 2004
Tis by Frank McCourt
Dan Schnieder Review The Best in Poetica seeks great poems & essays!

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