The tyranny of ordinary objects

PHOTO: Brett Jordan, Flickr CC-BY

Kids love balloons. Why not? They’re balls that float. I remember how helium balloons from the circus seemed like they could fly to the moon. The ones filled with dad’s cigarette smoke didn’t exactly float, but they were still fun.

My parents bought us a whole bag of balloons once. I struggled to blow hard enough to inflate one. Then, cross-eyed and red in the face, I finally succeeded. Only then did I realize the magic of a balloon let loose without being tied. Balls that fart. Life just kept getting better.

As a parent, my relationship with balloons changed. The kids would bring home balloons from a birthday party. These specters floated up and down the hallway for a month. They were like the dead townsfolk from “Our Town,” trying to forget they were ever alive in the first place.

Around this time last year, Americans obsessed over a very different balloon. A Chinese spy balloon was spotted over the heartland. It was all cable news and the old men at McDonald’s could talk about for weeks to follow. So much fuss over a balloon, it seemed. We shot it down, but the damage was done.

See, it was never about the spying. We’re being spied upon constantly, willingly, as we pump our personal information and private thoughts into our phones and computers. A floating junkyard of surveillance satellites orbit our planet at all times. No, this story suggested that something so simple as a modified weather balloon could be used as a weapon.

The conspiracy-oriented corners of the internet latched onto the idea that the downed spy balloon was a trial run for an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) weapon. An EMP explosion, like that from a nuclear bomb, could knock out all electronic devices and communication networks in the U.S.

Here we imagine all manner of chaos. Picture it. There would be no way to pay for things, make phone calls, access records or operate vehicles. We’d pour out across the landscape on bicycle and foot, looking for a place where things were like before, finding no such place ever again. Could we maintain social order? For how long?

In reality, an EMP that knocked out all our technology would need to occur in low earth orbit — in space — to actually work. It’s possible, but only as part of a genuine war, not balloon shenanigans. Balloons can’t reach that height without exploding. Thus, the spy balloon’s real weapon was fear. A potent weapon indeed. A society filled with fear tears itself apart from the inside.

We’re watching several wars play out across the world right now. Though the United States plays a role in all of them, for the most part Americans get to watch other people do the fighting and dying. It strikes me how ordinary the fighting now seems. It’s actually not like a video game. It’s mundane, no matter how horrific.

Drones, similar to the ones that buzzed college students fly over outdoor concerts, now dispense targeted weaponry in a theater of war. I watched some drone attack videos the other day. They portray death as a sort of claw game. You put in your quarters to retrieve the grim reaper. Try again! You’re so close.

Our minds picture war as immense and overt. Tanks roll. Armies march. But war now resembles a fox sneaking into a rabbit hutch. Just one scream, then silence. An insidious daily dose of fear.

Last month, the Chinese government floated more balloons, this time over Taiwan. They timed the exercise to intimidate Taiwanese voters from voting for candidates who favored autonomy from mainland China.

Taiwan was not deterred. It voted for a government that opposed Beijing. This risks war as China seeks to absorb what it considers a rogue province. But the responsibility for war rests now squarely with China. The worst thing to do in the face of tyranny is to succumb to its propaganda and fear. We must reject the hot air, no matter the receptacle.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, March 2, 2024 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Joe musich says

    So “mining”,”withdrawing”, “siphoning” heluim is what matters ?

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.