Almost every baby boomer of a certain age remembers the famous "Twilight Zone" episode, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” A 2009 Time magazine article cited it as one of the 10 best "Twilight Zone" episodes of all time, high praise considering the show’s place and influence in television history.
The plot of “Monsters” is simple enough. After a large flying object passes over a small town, the power goes out. Then lights, lawnmowers and cars take on a life of their own, turning on and off without human assistance. When a rumor sweeps through town that aliens have landed — aliens that can take on the appearance of human beings — people become suspicious of each other and then increasingly paranoid. At some point, the residents of Maple Street begin to attack and kill one another. By the end of the story, the town has descended into a murderous riot.
I found myself thinking about “Monsters” recently while reading of an incident that took place in the town of Twin Falls, Idaho, in the summer of 2016. Caitlin Dickerson explored this story in her New York Times Magazine piece “How Fake News Turned a Small Town Upside Down.”
The incident that triggered the uproar in Twin Falls involved three children. Two boys, ages 10 and 7, were accused of attempting some kind of sexual act with a 5-year-old girl and recording it on a cellphone. The boys were refugees from Sudan and Iraq; the girl was American and white. Because minors were involved in this episode, neither the Twin Falls police chief nor town officials could publicly discuss details of the case.
Throughout our nation’s history, there have been a number of episodes ... when national hysteria turned previously rational human beings into something quite different.
As news of the crime began to spread through Twin Falls and beyond, some concerned local citizens created Facebook groups to discuss the crime. Soon rumors began to fly. Some said the little girl had been raped at knifepoint. Others reported that the accused were Syrian refugees. One of the most inflammatory rumors claimed that the fathers of the boys had celebrated with their sons after the incident by giving them high-fives.
In recent years, a network of anti-Muslim blogs with names like Jihad Watch and The Muslim Issue have sprung up on the internet. These blogs argue that the United States is the object of a Muslim invasion that poses an existential threat to the nation. They stoke fears about Middle Eastern refugees and claim that many Muslim men are sexual predators.
Not surprisingly, these anti-Muslim blogs soon became interested in the Twin Falls story and began to spread unsubstantiated rumors about the case. Then large and influential far-right news outlets got into the act. An article appeared in the Drudge Report, for example, with the headline “REPORT: Syrian ‘Refugees’ Rape Little Girl at Knifepoint in Idaho.” More recently, it has come to light that even the Russian government set up fake Facebook accounts to spread rumors about Twin Falls and sow dissension among Americans.
"There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices -- to be found only in the minds of men."'The Twilight Zone'
Although the lead prosecutor in the case declared that the internet rumors were “100 percent false,” and the Twin Falls police chief dismissed them as misinformation, the hysteria grew. Anti-Muslim activists accused the Twin Falls City Council and police department as being a part of a conspiracy to cover up the crime. A reporter sent to Twin Falls by Breitbart news speculated on the radio that Twin Falls Mayor Shawn Barigar was “a big, you know, Shariah supporter.” In the wake of these charges, Barigar, members of the City Council and reporters for the Twin Falls newspaper, The Times-News, began to receive a torrent of hate messages and death threats.
Throughout our nation’s history, there have been a number of episodes — the Know-Nothing movement, the Red Scare following WWI and McCarthyism come to mind — when national hysteria turned previously rational human beings into something quite different. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the voice-over narration that Rod Serling included at the end of “Monsters” is as relevant today as it was in 1960:
The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices — to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill — and suspicion can destroy — and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own — for the children — and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.
If we let right-wing conspiracy nuts and Russian hackers unleash the prejudice, xenophobia and murderous impulses that exist somewhere deep in all human hearts, then — like the residents of Maple Street — we will have become the monsters we most fear.