A town discovers manna crashing from heaven and becomes the capital of america's alien nation

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    The real truth, assuming it doesn't involve a weather balloon, is made harder to get at by the sometimes mutable memories of aging "witnesses" and the fact that some of the most provocative evidence is secondhand. Industrious UFOlogists may spend years tracking down slim leads like the one attributed to a former cafe owner in Taos, N.M., who told interlocutors that an old customer, a desert rat named Cactus Jack, once told her he was "out there when the spaceship came down" and saw dead aliens with blood "like tar." But despite the best efforts of Kevin Randle and others, no one has yet been able even to confirm Jack's existence, let alone his veracity. Hunting spacemen can be as daunting as finding the lady who dried her poodle in the microwave.

    And yet it is the very murkiness of the Roswell Incident, the sense that it is both knowable and yet never quite confirmable, that the answers are hovering just beyond the horizon, that gives the Incident its enduring appeal; after all, if the government ever really said "jig's up" and produced a preserved alien for our delectation, we would be stunned for a day or two, perturbed for a week longer, and then we would move on to the girl who gave birth at the prom. As the makers of monster movies know, the unseen is always more compelling than the seen. The particular appeal of Roswell's elusiveness, and allusiveness, is captured in the canny words that appear at the end of The X-Files' credit sequence: "The truth is out there." The point is made more succinctly by the pins sold at the Enigma UFO Museum that read, simply, BELIEVE. What we are talking about is a leap of faith.

    Benson Saler and Charles A. Ziegler, professors of anthropology at Brandeis University, have just published a study of what they call the Roswell Myth, which in their view has "religious-like" elements without being religion per se. Its primary purpose, Saler and Ziegler say, is twofold. One is as a means of social protest, in that the Roswell story is in great part an antigovernment narrative; as Zeigler points out, the Incident was largely ignored until the late '70s, when it resurfaced and resonated with a public made cynical by those twin devils, Vietnam and Watergate. By then too, the Federal Government had grown so large and its concerns so cosmic — what with the space program and a nuclear arsenal that could, if push came to shove, wipe out humankind — that covert interactions with an alien culture might very well seem within the realm of possibility (curiously, the supposedly advanced alien race of Independence Day takes days to wipe out Earth's great cities, when everyone knows we could do the job in a matter of minutes).

    By positing a government conspiracy with limitless resources, the more fervent believers in the Myth also inoculate themselves against heresy: any concrete evidence the government or anyone else unearths to prove that the crash was strictly terrestrial is obviously engineered — it's a cannier brand of fundamentalism. The appearance of skeptical articles in a national magazine like this one could be part of a disinformation campaign to distract letter-to-the-editor-writing UFOlogists from more fruitful pursuits. For all you know, this author may be a member of an ultra-top-secret National Security Council committee with a terribly spooky acronym.

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