Millennium Shoot Out (12/99)

Since the 1970s, right-wing Christian identity groups and apocalyptic survivalists have spawned militant, quasi-underground formations, including some that call themselves patriots or militias. During the height of the rural farm crisis in the early 80s, for example, one such group, the Posse Comitatus – a loosely knit, armed network that spread White supremacy and anti-Semitism throughout the farm belt – captured a small but significant number of sympathizers among farmers and ranchers. Other extremists such as Aryan Nations and the Lyndon LaRouche group were also active. Soon a network linked tax protesters to organizations as far to the right as various Ku Klux Klan (KKK) splinter groups and neo-Nazis.

Reviving these and earlier right-wing populist movements, the patriot movement and its armed wing, the citizen militias, emerged in the 90s after the collapse of European communism and the launching of the Gulf War. When President Bush announced that his new foreign policy would help build a New World Order, his phrasing surged through the Christian and secular hard right like an electric shock. For decades, the same phrase had been used to represent the dreaded collectivist One World Government.

Some Christians saw Bush as signaling the End Times betrayal by a world leader. For secular anti-communists, it was a bold attempt to smash US sovereignty and impose a tyrannical collectivist system run by the UN. This galvanized pre-existing anti-globalist sentiments within the right into activism.

Arming the Faithful

A self-conscious patriot movement has recruited some five million followers who suspect – to varying degrees – that the government is manipulated by secret elites and plans the imminent imposition of tyranny. On the reformist side stand the John Birch Society and the conspiratorial wing of the Christian right. On the insurgent side are the Liberty Lobby and groups promoting themes historically associated with White supremacy and anti-Semitism.

The patriot movement has drawn recruits from several networks, including gun rights, anti-abortion, survivalist, anticommunist, libertarian, anti-tax, and anti-environmentalist. During the mid-90s, adherents who formed militias were sporadically active in all 50 states, with numbers estimated at between 20,000 and 60,000.

Both the patriots and militias grew rapidly, relying on computer networks, FAX trees, short-wave radio, AM talk radio, and video and audio tape distribution. These are arguably the first major US social movements to be organized primarily through overlapping non-traditional electronic media. The core narrative has been apocalyptic: The US government is controlled by a vast conspiracy of secret elites plotting a New World Order, and a globalist UN police state is planned for the near future.

A key early organizer, Linda Thompson, used short-wave radio and the Internet to spread elaborate apocalyptic warnings and conspiratorial assertions of government plots. She was widely believed within the militia movement until she called for an armed march on Washington, DC, to punish traitorous elected officials. Her plan was widely criticized as dangerous, probably illegal, and possibly part of a government conspiracy to entrap militia members. Mark Koernke, aka Mark of Michigan, quickly replaced her as the most-favored militia intelligence analyst.

Anticipating attack by government agents, a significant segment of the patriot and armed militia movement embraces survivalism. This apocalyptic view advocates storing large supplies of food, water, and medicine in anticipation of economic collapse, social unrest, or the Tribulations. Some adherents also acquire weapons.

As a protective maneuver, a number of survivalists have withdrawn to remote, usually rural, locations, or formed small communities for mutual self-defense. Living in a remote region of Idaho, for example, Randy Weaver and his wife were survivalists as well as Christian Identity adherents. Had the federal marshals who surrounded their house in 1992 taken this into account, a deadly shoot-out might have been avoided. Federal Marshal William Degan died, along with Weaver’s wife Vicki and son Samuel. Weaver and his friend Kevin Harris were wounded.

To avoid the Mark of the Beast, some Christian fundamentalist survivalists believe they must live apart from secular society for up to 42 months. According to Robert K. Spear, a key figure on the patriot/militia training circuit and the author of Surviving Global Slavery: Living Under the New World Order, we’re approaching the Tribulations of the End Times. Citing Revelation, Chapter 13, Spear says true Christians must defend their faith and prepare the way for the return of Christ through the formation of armed communities.

In 1993, the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, functioned as this type of survivalist retreat. Davidian leader David Koresh was decoding Revelation as an End Times script and preparing for the Tribulations. The government’s failure to comprehend the Davidian’s millennialist worldview set the stage for deadly miscalculations by government agents, costing the lives of 80 Branch Davidians (including 21 children), and four federal agents. TV coverage of this incident sent images of fiery apocalypse cascading throughout the society, further inflaming the apocalyptic paradigm within right-wing anti-government groups.

In the late 90s, the patriot and armed militia movements overlapped with a resurgent states’ rights movement, as well as a new "county supremacy" movement. Illegal, so-called constitutionalist "common law courts," set up by people claiming "sovereign" citizenship, experienced rapid growth. These courts claimed jurisdiction over legal matters on the county or state level, and dismissed the US judicial system as corrupt and unconstitutional.

Constitutionalist legal theory creates a two-tiered concept of citizenship in which White people have a superior "natural law" or "sovereign" citizenship. The most publicized incident involving common law ideology was the 1996 standoff involving the Montana Freemen, who combined Christian Identity, bogus common law legal theories, "debt-money" theories that reject the legality of the Federal Reserve system, and apocalyptic expectation.

Ready for Battle

The far right in the US is composed of groups such as the KKK, Aryan Nations, the Christian Patriots, ideological fascists, and neo-Nazis. In this context, the term "far right" refers to groups with an aggressively-insurgent or extra-legal agenda, including calls for denying basic human rights to a target group. Christian Patriots combine Christian nationalism with constitutionalism. Non-Christian neo-Nazis are able to work in coalitions with Christian Patriot groups due to shared anti-government sentiments and conspiracism rooted in historic anti-Jewish bigotry.

The most significant worldview in the Christian Patriot movement is Christian Identity, which holds that the US is the Biblical "Promised Land" and White Christians are God’s "Chosen People." It’s a millennialist ideology that plans for an imminent apocalyptic race war. In the 80s, Christian Identity was a common core belief in the Posse Comitatus. Some KKK and racist skinhead groups also espouse it, as does Aryan Nations. The neo-Nazi version claims Jews are Satanic agents who manipulate subhuman people of color. Many proponents of Christian Identity seek to overthrow the "Zionist Occupational Government" in Washington, DC, and establish an exclusively White, Christian nation.

The Gulf War encouraged Christian Patriot groups to peddle anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish power behind US military involvement. They reached out to the emerging militia movement with similar propaganda. For instance, the Tennessee-based Christian Civil Liberties Association published The Militia News, a catalog of books and other resources that included guides on how to evade government tracking and surveillance. The opening article, "U.S. Government Initiates Open Warfare Against American People," epitomizes anti-Semitic Christian Patriot dogma.

The article rails against what the author sees as unconstitutional attacks on states’ rights and the "systematic de-Christianization of the nation." Warning that this is part of a "satanic conspiracy," the author advises that "the globalists must outlaw and confiscate" firearms in order to succeed.

Mobilizing gun owners was the first step in building the militia movement out of the patriot movement. The Weaver and Waco incidents focused attention on government tyranny, and served as trigger events to galvanize a mobilization in 1993 and 1994 around stopping the Brady Bill and gun control provisions of the Crime Control Act. But more militant and suspicious elements grafted apocalyptic fears onto the gun rights campaign, arguing that if gun rights were restricted, a brutal and repressive government crackdown on gun owners would follow. The Weaver and Waco incidents were seen as field tests of the planned repression, with the ultimate goal being UN control of the US to benefit the conspiracy of secret, globalist elites. For many, this was a secular narrative, but an apocalyptic and millennialist End Times overlay was easily added by Christian fundamentalists. Another overlay was overt anti-Jewish conspiracism. Given such beliefs, the solution was to create independent, armed defensive units to resist the expected wave of government violence.

Timothy McVeigh, who moved from anti-government conspiracy theory to militant neo-Nazi ideology, blew up the Oklahoma City federal building on the anniversary of the Waco conflagration. It was meant to protest government abuse of power, considered a prelude to a tyrannical New World Order, and mimicked a scenario in the novel The Turner Diaries, which McVeigh distributed to friends. Written by neo-Nazi William Pierce, the book contains apocalyptic themes, and invokes the cleansing nature of ritual violence typical of Nazi ideology. McVeigh’s suspicion that the government implanted a micro-chip into his body during the Gulf War echoes historic concerns among fundamentalist Christians that the Mark of the Beast might be hidden in electronic devices.

Anatomy of Fear

The period immediately prior to a millennial date can be marked by people turning inward in preparation, removing themselves from society, and, in extreme cases, committing suicide. Other people target demonized groups for discrimination or violence to cleanse the society, or push it toward the final showdown. During the post-millennial period, people can turn outward, and express anger over failed expectations by blaming scapegoated groups for preventing the transformation.

In Robert Fuller’s view, apocalyptic fervor is part of a "literary and theological tradition" that is "transmitted through a variety of cultural institutions that are relatively immune" to certain "social or economic forces." Millennialist movements in the US often have reflected a Manichaean framework of absolute good versus absolute evil. As Jeffrey Kaplan notes, "A Manichaean framework requires the adherent to see the world as the devil’s domain, in which the tiny, helpless Ôrighteous remnant’ perseveres through the protection of God in the hope that, soon, God will see fit to intervene once and for all in the life of this world."

This perspective can promote a passive, fatalist response, or can lead some to be pro-active and interventionist, seeking to prepare the way for the anticipated confrontation. Efforts to name the Antichrist may be rooted in the psychological need to project one’s "unacceptable" tendencies onto a demonic enemy.

In many cases, the worldview of the reader or listener determines who gets scapegoated. Some people exposed to a conspiracist article or radio program might decide the villains are generic new world order elites who are manipulating the government. Others will be convinced they’re demonic forces of the Antichrist signaling the apocalyptic End Times. And some will blame it all on the Jews. A skillful wordsmith can address all three audiences at the same time by using coded rhetoric.

In some cases, the audience extrapolates beyond the intended message. C. Wright Mills, G. William Domhoff, and Holly Sklar have written structural and institutional critiques of power that eschew conspiracism. Yet right-wing populists cite these works, then claim that more informed research has exposed the nest of elites at the source of the conspiracy. Both Domhoff and Sklar have expressed exasperation at having their work touted by right-wing groups.

In November 1997, the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University held an international symposium to discuss the historical dynamics of apocalypticism. Center director Richard Landes expressed his concern that "most people don’t understand how quickly demonization and scapegoating can gain an audience in millennial times, particularly when believers become disappointed and frustrated."

Landes hopes the current millennial moment can have a positive outcome, and that apocalyptic fervor can be directed away from scapegoating and toward constructive and self-reflective renewal projects. But this will be tricky, notes Stephen O’Leary, since "the study of apocalyptic argument leads to the conclusion that its stratagems are endless, and not susceptible to negation through rational criticism." He suggests patience, a sense of tragedy in history, and a sense of humor as the best strategies for mending communities that have experienced the trauma of apocalyptic confrontation.

A Dangerous Dynamic

As the millennium approaches, we’re seeing a dramatic convergence of apocalyptic thinking, demonization, scapegoating, and conspiracism. At the same time, we’re in the midst of the longest right-wing backlash since the end of Reconstruction. Ritual purification campaigns by the Christian Right continue to spread divisiveness. For some apocalyptic Christians, the End Times have arrived, and the witch-hunt for satanic agents has begun in earnest. A right-wing populist revolt against globalization blames secret elites and conspiracies. Clinic attacks, terrorist bombings, and racist murders can be linked to increasing apocalyptic preparation or retribution.

Such theories played a role in the criminal cases of John C. Salvi III, convicted of murdering two reproductive health center workers and wounding five others, and Francisco Martin Duran, who sprayed the White House with bullets. Duran was known to listen to a right-wing Colorado-based radio talk show hosted by Chuck Baker that broadcast conspiratorial claims by adherents to the patriot and armed militia movements. Both Duran and Salvi, who committed suicide in jail, showed signs of psychological disturbance.

Prior to his deadly rampage, Salvi distributed lurid photographs of fetuses from Human Life International. He began quoting from Revelation and expressed interest in the militia movement. Magazines found in his residence included The New American and The Fatima Crusader, both published by right-wing groups promoting conspiracy theories and vociferously opposing abortion and homosexuality. One issue of The New American found in Salvi’s home contained an article exploring the notion that killing an abortion provider might be morally justified, an idea promoted in some militant anti-abortion circles.

Certainly a person like Salvi doesn’t represent the mainstream of Catholicism, the anti-abortion movement, or the US political right. But he does express the views of a durable, paranoid subculture that targets scapegoats. The failure of political and religious leaders to take strong public stands against groups and individuals that spread scapegoating conspiracy theories encourages this dangerous dynamic.

Right-wing populist movements can cause serious damage to a society by popularizing xenophobia, authoritarianism, scapegoating, and conspiracy thinking. Sometimes adopting these themes, mainstream politicians attract voters, thus legitimizing discrimination (or even violence), and opening the recruitment door for revolutionary right-wing populist movements, such as fascism.

According to Richard K. Fenn, "Fascist tendencies are most likely to flourish wherever vestiges of a traditional community, bound together by ties of race and kinship, persist in a society largely dominated by large-scale organizations, by an industrial class system, and by a complex division of labor. Under these conditions the traditional community itself becomes threatened; its members all the more readily dread and demonize the larger society."

But by examining the apocalyptic and millennialist roots of the narratives peddled by right-wing forces, we can better understand why their claims – on the surface, outlandish – nonetheless resonate in certain alienated sectors of society.

The history of apocalyptic fervor and millennial expectation is mainly written by those secure in the knowledge that all previous predictions have turned out to be false. While believers prepare for the spiritual tsunami that will wash away sins and sinners, skeptics assume it’s just another wave that will eventually collapse. Yet, no matter what we believe, we’re all destined to experience the effects of the apocalypse. It invents itself in the maelstrom of the human mind, and no logical arguments can stop the storm.

We ignore apocalyptic fears and millennial expectations at our peril. Given the already evident tendency toward scapegoating during this millennial transition, it’s entirely predictable that more people will be targeted as agents of the Antichrist, traitorous minions of the globalist new world order, or simply sinners to be disciplined and kept in line in religious campaigns of coercive purity. The challenge is to respect devout religious belief while focusing on a millennial period of introspection and renewal rather than a period of fear and mistrust.

In times like these, history passes a harsh judgment on silence.

Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates (PRA), is on the advisory board of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. This four-part series was adapted from material in PRA’s Public Eye newsletter.