By: Marshall Fine
Warning! The following article may contain information someone - we're not saying who - doesn't want you to have. Read at your own risk.
With all the publicity about the cacophonic convergence of UFOlogists in Roswell, N.M., there has been surprisingly little talk about the men in black.
That's just the way they want it.
So it stands to reason that they're not happy with "Men in Black," which stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. The film, a science-fiction comedy that opened Wednesday, reveals the existence of a secret government agency - the men in black - whose mandate is to keep the presence of extraterrestrials on Earth a secret from the rest of the planet.
While director Barry Sonnenfeld's movie vision of aliens-among-us is imaginary ("Although I kind of hope my mother is an alien - it would explain so much," Sonnenfeld says), the legend of the men in black - or MiBs - had a life of its own 40 years before Hollywood decided it would make a dandy summer movie treat.
There are plenty of people who will tell you, in fact, that the real men in black roam among us today (though they probably don't look like Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones). Their job: to use threats, money and other forms of coercion to keep information about extraterrestrial activity on and around Earth away from the public.
"I've talked to quite a few people who claim to have had pretty harassing experiences with them," says John Price, who operates the UFO Enigma Museum in Roswell, N.M. (ground-zero this week for close-encounter buffs celebrating the 50th anniversary of a supposed UFO incident at Roswell).
Deon Crosby, director of Roswell's International UFO Museum (and Price's competitor), says, "I believe in them. I don't know if they're dressed in black, but I believe whole-heartedly that agents in plain clothes watch everything this museum does and tap our phones."
But Peter Davenport, director of the National UFO Reporting Center in Seattle isn't so sure.
"Only a minor fraction of what people say about ufology (pronounced you-FOL-uh-gee) is close to the truth," Davenport says. "I believe what solid evidence shows me. This MiB phenomenon has been hurled about for a long time. And I have yet to see any evidence."
Joe Nickell, senior research fellow with the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (or CSICOP), founded by Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov, is more blunt: "There is no evidence that men in black are anything other than hoaxes or urban legends," Nickell says. "It just grows and, every so often, is renewed. These things never go away."
And some things never show up in the first place. What's missing? Evidence - physical proof. It's the touchstone of UFO studies and, in the case of MiBs, is startlingly elusive.
The reason? The men in black.
"We'll get calls from people with supposed pieces of UFOs," Crosby says. "Then, the next thing we hear, someone from some type of organization, not necessarily the government, shows up with a lot of money for them and takes the pieces and tells them they're going to test them. And you never see them again."
The story of the men in black has been around since the early 1950s. The phrase may have been coined by a man named Albert Bender, who had founded a club called the International Flying Saucer Bureau. Bender began publishing the Space Review, a newsletter for flying-saucer hobbyists.
One day in 1952, he later told friends, three men in dark suits, wearing hats and sunglasses, approached him and told him to stop talking about flying saucers. The men were hairless and otherworldly. He later said they had represented themselves as U.S. government agents and had severely harassed him to keep his mouth shut.
He finally published a 1962 book, "Flying Saucers and the Three Men" (Saucerian). The legend of the MiBs became a branch in the tree of UFO lore over the years, one that comic-book artist Lowell Cunningham tapped into with his 1992 Marvel series, "The Men in Black," that eventually became the source of the film, "Men in Black."
In the film "Men in Black," the aliens became Earth emigres 40 years ago. Most of them live in Manhattan: "If an alien came to Earth, the place he'd probably feel most comfortable is New York City," Sonnenfeld reasons. It's the job of the men in black to keep the invasion a secret, even while monitoring alien activity for signs of anti-human behavior.
To Sonnenfeld, the movie is "all about the fact that I really believe we don't have a clue what's going on around us - but we have to think we do to get on with our lives."
Which is the way a lot of people seem to feel. That sense of cluelessness feeds their need to believe in things like conspiracy theories - whether about the Kennedy assassination, the origin of AIDS or faceless government agents hiding the truth about UFOs on Earth.
"We feel so out of control," Sonnenfeld says. "The government gets bigger and bigger. Conspiracy theories allow us to believe that we're not incompetent, that we're just being manipulated."
Says Nickell, "We're in a society that thrives on conspiracy."
Nickell, a columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer, adds, "Several things go into the mix. Anytime there's secrecy or something that's unknown, that's a climate in which people who don't know anything can get attention. So you have conspiracy mongers and pathological liars coming out of the woodwork. This is also a period in which cynicism passes as intelligence. No matter what the story is, the cynic always fears the story is more sinister than people are letting on."
Forget for a moment the question of how and wonder instead: Why would the government keep the presence of a UFO such a dark secret for so many years?
"Suppose they had a flying spaceship that didn't run on petroleum-based fuel," Crosby says. "What do you think would happen to our economy? The powers that be in the government that are behind this may not be the White House, you know.
"It could just be a cover-up of their ignorance. Maybe they're afraid to say that they've had this saucer for 50 years and still don't know how it works, that they're like a chimp in front of a computer - they can press the button and make it light up and that's it."
A majority of Americans in a recent survey conducted by a committee of the Air Force agreed with her. In the survey, 61 percent believed that there's a government agency maintaining top-secret files of UFO reports that are deliberately being withheld from the public. More people, in fact, believed in the conspiracy of silence about UFOs than believed in UFOs themselves.
Even Davenport, who has seen no proof that MiBs exist, says, "Clearly the United States government is not dealing squarely with the American people. It's quite clear that, in dealing with UFOs, we are dealing with something very real. Yet the government virtually does not address the issue."
(Actually, the Air Force announced that what crashed at Roswell was a government balloon, manned by crash-test dummies.)
With the anniversary of the Roswell close encounter this week, Crosby was expecting 2,000-3,000 people a day through her Roswell museum. What keeps them coming?
That growing suspicion that something is being kept secret from them, which is fueled by movies like "Men in Black" and TV shows like "Dark Skies" (which supposed that Roswell was a sinister government collaboration with aliens) and "The X Files" (which also fosters suspicions of far-reaching government conspiracies and cover-ups).
To Nickell, these shows only serve to reinforce old, debunked ideas or plant even wilder new ones.
"One reason the paranormal keeps coming back is that it gives you the promise of something wonderful," Nickell observes. "But it doesn't deliver. Shows like `Dark Skies' and `The X Files' tend to blur the legitimate genre of science-fiction with the real world, so the implication is that there's some level of pseudo-reality."
Or maybe that's what they want us to believe. Maybe shows like "The X Files" and films such as "Men in Black" do reflect the truth and we're being lulled into a sense of false security by consuming that truth as mere entertainment.
Sonnenfeld's Long Island neighbor, for example, is convinced that Sonnenfeld is holding out on her about the men in black.
"She said to me, `OK, tell me the truth do they exist?"' Sonnenfeld says. "When I told her I didn't know anything, she said, `Oh, come on.' She eventually got angry and stormed off because I wouldn't tell her the truth."
Not that Sonnenfeld even knows the truth. At least he says he doesn't.
That's probably what they want him to say.