by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak
In memory of Bill Clark and of Eileen Darby, whose counsel couldn’t be more relevant today: “Vote Party.”
WEST WINDSOR, New Jersey — Unlike the pre-Halloween, pre-Election fear and division extremist Right-wing hate groups have been attempting to sow in the United States in recent weeks and months, goaded on by President Trump, when the Martians ‘landed’ in this then-rural suburb of Princeton 80 years ago this week, it was an accident.
“Orson put on a blindfold and threw a dart at a map of the United States,” Howard Koch, who co-wrote the adaptation of H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds” with Orson Welles for the Mercury Theater of the Air, told me when I interviewed him for the New York Times in 1983 for the 45th anniversary of the October 30, 1938 Hindenburg-style, You Are There format CBS Radio performance of the imagined invasion of pods from the Red Planet and their subsequent anihilation of most of the world’s population, which set off a nationwide panic. In the broadcast, the first pod is spotted on a farm in this Princeton suburb.
Sheldon Judson, then a junior at Princeton and a stringer for the Associated Press (and later to head the university’s Geology department), told me he got a call from his editors “asking me to drive out to West Windsor to investigate.” If the difference between this long-ago (and unintended) fake news and the fake fears being deliberately stoked by Donald Trump and his minions is that Welles was not intentionally trying to sow panic — curtain-raiser and intermission announcements informed listeners they were hearing a dramatic broadcast — the similarity is that both exploited public paranoia. In Welles’s case, it was probably this grand showman’s native instinct to tap into real fears generated by Hitler’s advances in Europe and Japanese grumbling in the Pacific for maximum dramatic impact. Even if he’d chosen the location for the Martian landing at random, the timing was no accident.
The difference between the Martians Welles had debark in New Jersey and the fanatics Right-wing hate-speech and fear-mongering around the Other may have inspired to send suspected bombs to Democratic leaders and other liberal figures, kill 11 Jewish-Americans, and wound several police officers is that unlike the two alleged perpetrators, Welles didn’t mean to hurt anybody.
These perpetrators not only meant to sow panic and, in the case of Robert Bowers if he’s convicted of the Pittsburgh slaughter, kill, but were apparently also motivated, at least in Bowers’s case, by fear of a people who have become today’s fake Martians, or Bogeymen: Refugees and migrants.
For lost in some of the coverage, at least internationally, of the Squirrel Hill massacre is that it wasn’t just targeting Jews, but supporters of refugees. In his last Internet post before he allegedly launched his murderous attack, Bowers, writing on right-wing social media, expressed his ire with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society over what he called its efforts to help “bring invaders in that kill our people.”
So — to paraphrase Welles’s reassuring closing of 80 years ago in the opposite sense — if you hear someone tweeting on your portal, those were no Immigrants; it’s election time.