The setting is the Clinton White House–as interpreted in the movie Contact–and presidential advisers have convened to discuss an extraterrestrial communication in the form of an engineering diagram. The plans, says Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster), are for “some kind of machine.”
“A machine? That does what, doctor?” asks a presidential aide.
“Some kind of a transport,” Arroway replies.
“It could be anything,” counters National Security Adviser Michael Kitz (James Woods), who is dubious of extraterrestrial motivations. “It could be a Trojan horse. We build it, and out pours the entire Vegan army.”
That isn’t, in the end, what the aliens have in mind, but the term Trojan horse–the durable ancestor of the expressions fifth column and mole, and of the modifier stealth–has certainly been enjoying a prominent vitality these days, as befits an era that values frontal hostility far less than it does insidious subterfuge. “Year of the Trojan Horse,” proclaimed one New York Times headline the day after the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong was returned to China. The familiar story of the Trojan horse appears in Virgil’s Aeneid: The horse, with armed men hidden inside, is presented by the Greek enemy to the besieged city of Troy, and brought within its walls. It immediately achieves an afterlife as metaphor (in addition to yielding the admonition “beware of Greeks bearing gifts”). “The central question,” wrote Times correspondent Nicholas D. Kristof in his Hong Kong dispatch, “is whether Hong Kong amounts to a colossal Trojan horse: a prize so glorious that China’s Communists cannot leave it outside the gates but which, once inside, will destroy those in power” with its irrepressible example of roiling capitalism and affluence, and its concentrated economic power.
Trojan horse has found further application in recent months in the realm of plastic surgery. The phrase refers to a bodily overhaul so extensive as to render obsolete all superficial indications of age or identity. “I’m a Trojan horse,” the beneficiary of such procedures, a woman of 42, a self-described member of Mensa, explained last June to a newspaper reporter, “because what you see is not what you get. I may look young and bimboesque, but I am nothing of the sort.” Earlier this summer the alleged Mexican drug baron Amado Carrillo Fuentes apparently died on the operating table while undergoing cosmetic surgery of Trojan horse amplitude; law-enforcement officials needed to perform forensic testing to confirm that the decedent was, in fact, Carrillo. Also in the medical arena are the various kinds of Trojan horse invaders that trick their way into acceptance by the body’s cells, and then cause illness; and the various kinds of Trojan horse countermeasures, including gene therapy and vaccines.
T he most prevalent use of Trojan horse today is its cyberuse, now two decades old, where it refers to hard-to-detect instructions secretly embedded in computer software, making possible various kinds of unauthorized or unintended outcomes ranging from theft to breach of security to self-destruction. Trojan horses, long of concern to money managers, database managers, and weapons experts at the Pentagon, afflicted thousands of ordinary consumers in the course of an episode concluded by the Federal Trade Commission last winter. This Trojan horse, which acquired the variant name Moldovan horse, quietly made users place a long-distance phone call to Moldova whenever they gained access to a certain pornographic site on the Internet. Consumers were unaware not only that they were placing such a call, but also that exiting from the site did not terminate the call. The Moldovan horse scam was inevitably short-lived. A sudden spike in the aggregate volume of U.S.-Moldova telephone traffic, followed by the delivery of outlandish phone bills to individuals, soon suggested the existence of a problem.
One way to turn almost anything into a conceptual Trojan horse is to attach the word stealth to it as a modifier. The relatively recent term stealth candidate has had two meanings. One refers simply to a candidate who seems not to show up on the political radar screen–George Bush used the term this way in speaking of his opponent, Michael Dukakis, in 1988. The other, now more common, meaning harbors an element of deviousness: Stealth candidates in state and local elections in 1992 and 1994, for example, were Trojan stalking horses for fundamentalist Christian forces–men and women who emphasized popular, secular conservative issues in their campaigns but failed to disclose that their candidacies had been covertly planned and energized by the religious right. Stealth in both usages obviously builds on the precedent of the B-2 Stealth Bomber, the strategic aircraft built by the Northop Corp. that can penetrate enemy air defenses undetected. The aircraft, in turn, eventually gave rise to the Stealth condom, whose manufacturer was sued by Northop in 1991 for trademark infringement. The Stealth condoms were red, white, and blue–a Trojan horse of another color, one might say–and were sold in a deltoid package reminiscent of the Stealth Bomber’s design, bearing the motto “They’ll Never See You Coming.” Northop alleged that the condom’s name was “likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive,” a concern that might have been more understandable if each condom came with a billion-dollar price tag. Northrop in the end decided to drop the matter.
ATrojan horse in espionage is a mole, a foreign agent who has burrowed deep into a society or government. The connotation is of Cold War provenance and was given broad currency in large part through the novels of John Le Carré, whose longtime protagonist, the spy master George Smiley, has pursued moles within British intelligence. Those within a population who sympathize with an enemy’s aims, and may render assistance when the time is ripe, constitute a fifth column, a term that goes back to the Spanish Civil War and the remark of a rebel general, Emilio Mola, to the effect that his four columns of troops would be supplemented by a civilian quinta columna, a fifth column of sympathizers, in their attack on Loyalist-held Madrid in 1936. Ernest Hemingway published a play with the title The Fifth Column in 1938. Numerical terminology (think third wave, fourthdimension, fifthestate, sixthsense) is an open invitation to extension. Franklin Roosevelt used the term sixth column in 1942 to refer to rumor-mongerers, hoarders, and others who unwittingly hampered the war effort; the term seventh column was applied later to those whose carelessness led to industrial accidents. If every new refinement since then in the quiet sapping of our national morale has earned a numerical “column,” then by now, I estimate, we must be up somewhere close to “78th column” (applied, maybe, to producers of the weekly network TV movies about bloody domestic mayhem) and “79th column” (airplane passengers who bring carry-on luggage that they know won’t fit into the overhead storage bins) or possibly even higher.
And my sixth sense tells me that it won’t stop there.