Not much intelligent life in Washington. Outer space is another story.

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty

Here, in no particular order, are some of the stories we’ve been closely following in Washington this week, in case you’re one of these people who removed yourself from Facebook in protest and now can’t figure out how to receive information of any kind.

  1. The first lady has mostly disappeared from public view.
  2. President Trump is threatening to pardon himself from crimes he didn’t commit, just to be sure.
  3. The Super Bowl champion Eagles were disinvited from the White House after saying they wouldn’t come anyway.
  4. The beleaguered EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, apparently sent an aide on a frantic search for a used hotel mattress. (You read that right.)

You know what story nobody’s thinking much about in Washington right now? Aliens.

I’m not talking about the undocumented kind who get snatched by the Border Patrol and separated from their kids. I’m talking about the green kind with giant heads and insect eyes, kind of like Ted Cruz, only smaller.

I know this probably sounds like a more trivial and sensational subject than anything I mentioned above. I really don’t think it is, and I’ll explain why.

Last December, a team of my former colleagues at the New York Times reported on a bizarre episode off the coast of San Diego in 2004. A couple of Navy fliers, alerted to strange readings of unidentified aircraft, intercepted a Tic Tac-shaped ship that seemed to dart around the sky and then hover suddenly over the ocean, creating a circular disturbance in the water.

According to one of the pilots, now retired, the craft had no obvious flying apparatus — that is, none of the wings or rotors you would need to stay in the sky, let alone easily outmaneuver an F-18.

The Times posted what alleged to be a cockpit video of the incident, though to the layman it looked like a muddled image from an Atari game in the 1980s and didn’t really tell you much.

The story was part of a larger report on a secret unit inside the Pentagon, whose research was championed by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Naturally, this led to his being ridiculed in Washington as a UFO nut and all of that.

After the Times account was publicized more widely, Reid arranged for reporters at the CBS affiliate in his home state of Nevada to get a briefing in Washington. A few weeks ago, those reporters published the summary of a report on the San Diego incident compiled for the Pentagon.

As you might expect, there’s nothing conclusive in that brief report, which you can read here. (It contains a lot of useless jargon about the technical specifications of radar systems, which you could find on Wikipedia.) But it’s remarkable nonetheless.

The pilots who saw that craft 14 years ago, during a two-week period in which it appeared and reappeared frequently, were pretty sure that no military power on the planet — us, the Chinese, the Russians — possessed anything like it. They described the craft as about 46 feet long, “solid white, smooth, with no edges.”

The same pilot whom the Times interviewed told investigators that, as he approached the craft, the disturbance in the water below abruptly ceased and the ship tilted in the direction of the F-18. The craft flew off at a seemingly impossible speed and couldn’t be tracked by radar.

Now, experts will remind us that we shouldn’t be too credulous about this report — or the people who’ve been publicizing it. They include Luis Elizondo, who apparently ran the Pentagon’s secret UFO unit, and who is now employed by a private company set up by Tom DeLonge, frontman for the band Blink-182.

In February, for instance, before the executive report became public, Sarah Scoles, a writer for Wired, posted a highly skeptical piece about the Times report, questioning things like the origins of the video and whether the information about the incident had been classified or just secret. I guess that matters.

But I’m not here to tell you whether aliens exist, or if they like to visit San Diego, or how this might relate to Mitt Romney living in La Jolla. No, I’m more interested in the larger questions this report raises that a reflective, intellectually curious society might feel compelled to answer.

Let’s just assume for a moment that what our pilots saw wasn’t some never-before-glimpsed weather balloon or secret Wakandan teleporting machine, but in fact a visitor from another planet.

That would mean that somehow, for centuries now, even as we’ve mocked the idea of little green men, we’ve had a stunningly accurate idea of what extraterrestrial ships actually look like — disc-shaped and white, just like in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” How could we possibly have known that, unless there’s a very long oral history of alien encounters that should now be reconsidered?

What’s in the ocean that these aliens seem so keen to investigate? And should it preoccupy us at all that, if we’ve actually seen an alien craft up close, then we are also entirely defenseless? We couldn’t even track this thing on radar.

Go ahead and laugh if you want. The point is that, as governing and media establishments in the age of entertainment, we’ve lost all perspective. We can no longer differentiate what’s entirely superfluous from what seems superfluous but might really matter.

We read this mesmerizing stuff about alien encounters, and then, amazingly, we move on to something like Pruitt’s mattress, in the time it takes to eat a bowl of cereal.

When I was a kid, memories of the moon landing were still fresh enough that we drank Tang and played with plastic space modules. The country had a sense of wonder and destiny, and its leaders — for all their evident flaws — pushed to expand our definition of boundaries, along with our understanding of who we really are.

Now, instead of looking out with fascination and curiosity, we turn inward with fear and resentment. At exactly the moment when we might want to hold ourselves out as worthy leaders of the planet, we ratify an “America First” approach that doesn’t even include the Canadians.

We leave it to rich dreamers like Tom DeLonge or Elon Musk to run around like real-life Tony Starks, pioneering the future while we sit around arguing about the past.

And as media, we magnify whatever’s right in front of us with such intensity that we can’t distinguish any of it from the larger story. We’re living in Trump’s America now — a new outrage every hour, without time or energy left over to ruminate on the deeper questions that animate a healthy society.

I guess we’ll only really care about interplanetary life forms when they finally drop Melania back home.

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