Editor’s Notebook: All eyes on the big balloons

February 17, 2023 6:25 am
Grass with small patches of snow in a city park

This is not what the State House lawn in Concord is supposed to look like in the middle of February. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Rain fell off and on Wednesday morning – fat, biting drops that seemed forged by July but tempered in mid-November. You could hear it land on sad patches of leftover January snow, gray and crusted. A low, silver sheet of sky blocked not only the warming sun but the probing eyes of spy balloons. 

Spy balloons. In a world of problems, what an odd thing we have placed near the top of the list.

That’s not a reprimand, because God knows I’ve followed the “low-altitude objects” story as closely as anybody. What the heck are those things? Did we really need to use a Sidewinder missile (or two) to clear the airspace? Will shooting at UFOs become a task the military performs regularly and openly? 

I know the balloon saga is not a big story – especially compared to Ukraine, and Michigan State, and East Palestine, Ohio – but it’s quite literally a shiny object and it’s hard to look away. There are troubling things happening on the ground, always, and the balloons are a distraction – from war, mass shootings, train derailments, and the fact that a February rain fell in New Hampshire Wednesday morning and there was hardly any snow to catch the drops.

David Ropeik, an author and retired Harvard professor, has been thinking about the balloons, too. In a guest essay for the New York Times this week, he wrote about “Balloon Freakout,” risk perception, and the media’s responsibility in all of this: “And we all can realize that when we are sorting out what to be afraid of and how afraid to be, the best thing to do is to take a breath, avoid jumping to emotion-based and poorly informed conclusions, and give our more careful reasoning cognitive processes a louder voice.”

If only it were that simple. As Ropeik also notes in his essay, research shows that “we are instinctively wired to worry more about new risks and about risks with a lot of uncertainty.” The war in Ukraine is more than a year old, with an estimated 200,000-plus military casualties. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there were 647 mass shootings last year. In 2021, the EPA reports, 67 million tons of pollution were emitted into the atmosphere in the United States.

Same old, same old. Every new day brings another casualty of war, another mass shooting, another toxic plume. But there is something new under the sun, and it could be floating over your town at this very moment.

On Thursday afternoon, under another silver sky, I didn’t need a coat for my lunchtime walk downtown. Outside of the State House, I saw one guy in shorts and another wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and neither looked the slightest bit cold. It’s the middle of February in New Hampshire, and other than one January storm that gave me a shoveling workout and a weekend-long arctic blast earlier this month, winter still hasn’t really begun. 

Back at the office, I checked the headlines again.

From Reuters: “Ukraine pounded by missiles, Russia eyes capturing Bakhmut by April.”

From Michigan Advance: “Police say unspecified grudge may have motivated MSU mass shooter.”

From the Washington Post: “Angry and scared, Ohio residents question response to toxic derailment.”

And then there’s this one, from the Boston Globe: “ ‘The climate I lived in as a kid is long gone’: Climate change is stealing New England’s winters.”

So I take a deep breath, squelch any emotion-based and poorly informed conclusions that pop up, and usher forth my more careful reasoning cognitive processes.

Now, with a clear head, I can start sorting out what to be afraid of and how afraid to be. I’d rather think about balloons.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Dana Wormald
Dana Wormald

Dana Wormald, a lifelong resident of New Hampshire, has been a newspaper editor for more than 25 years. He began his career on the Concord Monitor’s news desk in 1995 and later spent more than a decade at the New Hampshire Union Leader. In 2014, he returned to the Monitor to serve as opinion editor, a position he held until being named editor of the Bulletin.