NARRATOR: “Maple Street, U.S.A., late summer. A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, hop scotch, the laughter of children, and the bell of an ice cream vendor. At the sound of the roar and the flash of light it will be precisely 6:43 P.M. on Maple Street.”
At this moment one of the little boys, Tommy, looks up to listen to a sound of a tremendous screeching roar from overhead. A flash of light plays on both their faces and then it moves down the street past lawns and porches and rooftops and then disappears.
NARRATOR: "At the sound of the roar and the flash of light it will be precisely 6:43 P.M. on Maple Street."
-"The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" teleplay, Rod Serling
Welcome back, to the Twilight Zone. “The Monsters are Due On Maple Street” was written in 1960 by Rod Serling for his famous sci-fi television series.
I have a deep memory of reading it in school, late jr. high or early high school... it was a short story version, or perhaps it was the actual teleplay that we read. I'm sure I saw the old B&W episode on TV around that time as well. It was a great piece to read at that age, the theme just challenging enough for a 9th or 10th grader, and one that obviously resonates today.
The shows were deceptively simple. Serling's writing was always straightforward, never pretentious. Unsophisticated, low-budget special effects were used when required. First-rate acting, ("Monsters..." starred Claude Atkins and Jack Weston.) This all made for masterful storytelling.
After we see that streak of flashing light illuminate Maple Street, folks on the block look to the sky and begin to talk about what just happened. In what they believe must be a related turn of events, a few folks notice that the electricity has gone out, at least for some homes. A car won’t start, and then it does. Neighbors share their suspicions about what has happened, and in no time those suspicions focus on each other. One young boy informs the others that it was probably space aliens, and now the aliens are probably disguised as one of the neighbors - he explains that this theory is based on many sci-fi plots that he’s read in books.
As a few other inexplicable events take place - the lawn mower dies, the phones and radios stop working - the residents of the street become increasingly paranoid. In no time, they begin to fear each other as being space aliens. The events lead to a rapid breakdown of trust, even among friends. Soon, the community turns on each other in deadly mob violence.
STEVE: Charlie, ...Stop telling me who's dangerous and who isn't and who's safe and who's a menace.
(he turns to the group and shouts)
And you're with him too - all of you! You're standing here all set to crucify - all set to find a scapegoat - all desperate to point some kind of a finger at a neighbor! Well now look, friends, the only thing that's gonna happen is that we'll eat each other up alive-
—"The Monsters are Due on Maple St." teleplay
Sound eerily familiar? Not the space alien part, but just how little it takes to set neighbor against neighbor, friends against friends, and family members against each other? A little social stress followed by some finger-pointing, wild accusations, and a conspiracy theory or two... pretty soon "we'll eat each other up alive!"
Foreign actors have always tried to interfere in US politics and elections. And the US has done its share of foreign meddling to "protect America's interests." (See: Central America, Cuba, all of the middle east, etc.) But the internet and now social media have accelerated that trend exponentially. And spies don't have to cut the phone lines and electricity to start a panic (though that option is on the table... and conspiracy theories run rampant about that very threat.)
Just send a few bucks to candidates that are known "disrupters." Start an inexpensive social media operation where bots are programmed to comment negatively or spread false information about candidates or hot-button issues. Some of this serves to elect candidates that favor foreign business and political interests. But much is just to sabotage American elections and ultimately, society. Encouraging conspiracy theories about the ineffectiveness of vaccines or how a presidential election was "stolen," only serves to weaken the U.S. It amplifies domestic squabbles and empowers fringe lunatics who wish to destabilize democracy for their own self-interests.
Each attack further erodes trust in the institutions that hold up social order. Whether it's the various levels of government, or something as basic as our educational systems. Each attack builds up that FUD, (fear, uncertainty, and doubt,) and "disrupts" social norms. A fake Twitter account sparking outrage over gun rights, abortion, or immigrants.
Last week, a massive balloon racing across the continental United States captured the entire nation's imagination. OK. Not racing. Wafting? If you were in some sort of sensory deprivation chamber all week, we can tell you that it was some sort of CHINESE SPY BALLOON!
(“We’re all gonna die!.”)
(“Get back in the wagon, Mama.”)
The balloon was hiding in plain sight. It flew, often visible from the ground, from Alaska, through Canada, coming back into the US in Idaho, and blew all the way down to South Carolina. It carried a payload the “size of two or three school busses” according to the Pentagon. It was filled with all manner of spy gear -allegedly - along with solar panels to power said spy stuff. Whereas commercial jetliners fly at around 30K feet, give or take, this monster floated around and altitude of 80K feet +.
The military wasn’t too keen on blowing the thing up and having school bus-sized chunks of spy shrapnel landing on anyone’s head, and they didn’t think those dastardly Chinese were getting much in the way of secret intel. But as the week went on and the balloon continued wafting, the folks on Maple Street were getting antsy.
In other words, people lost their damned minds.
Conservatives, Republicans, and generally every Bubba in flyover country with a 12-gauge or an AR wanted to shoot it down. This was encouraged by their elected leaders, unelected leaders, and gun makers.
While the right was locking and loading, the president and the military were trying to bring some reason and a measured response. Late in the week, it was determined that the balloon would be brought down, but not until it was over open water and could be done so safely. Air traffic would be brought to a halt so a high-flying air force jet could launch a Stinger missile into it.
"The Onion" satirical news outlet posted a hilarious take on the testosterone-based reaction to the situation.
"There's a Chinese spy balloon over Montana. 'Oh my God, Now they'll know where we keep the cows!'... Of course, the Chinese are denying it, say it's a weather balloon, saying they'd never use a spy balloon to infiltrate America, that's what Tik Tok is for." -Bill Maher, comedian
(Amidst the chaos, the screen dissolves to a shot of two silhouetted figures inside a brightly lit space-craft of some sort, obviously a short distance from Maple St. )
FIGURE ONE: Understand the procedure now? Just stop a few of their machines and radios and telephones and lawn mowers...throw them into darkness for a few hours and then you just sit back and watch the pattern.
FIGURE TWO: And this pattern is always the same?
FIGURE ONE: With few variations. They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find...and it's themselves. And all we need do is sit back...and watch.
FIGURE TWO: Then I take it this place...this Maple Street...is not unique.
FIGURE ONE: (shaking his head) By no means. Their world is full of Maple Streets. And we'll go from one to the other and let them destroy themselves. One to the other...one to the other...one to the other-- CAMERA TILTS UP TO STARRY SKY
-"The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" teleplay, Rod Serling
But it doesn't take a spaceship and space aliens. A balloon will do. Just watch the chaos spread. If you can't afford a big balloon, just shovel the wildest, most insane drivel that you can onto the web. "Flood the zone with shit," is how Trump advisor Steve Bannon once put it. Or you can easily program a few social media bots to stir the pot for you. Create some fake accounts, argue about social media posts, create fake, sensational headlines, report false scientific data, and question the faith, patriotism, or toughness of your adversary.
No need to cut the phone lines or vandalize the electric grid. Just start a rumor. "Question" everything.
NARRATOR'S VOICE: The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices - to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own for the children...the children yet unborn. (a pause) And the pity of it is...that these things cannot be confined to...The Twilight Zone!
-"Monsters are Due on Maple Street" teleplay, Rod Serling
Welcome to Maple Street, ya'll.