Just a perfectly ordinary doomsday fanatic

Survivalists are reacting rationally to a crazy world

Sociology professor Richard Mitchell has written a book purporting to explain American "survivalists," whom he defines as people preparing for a myriad of anticipated "troubles."

His premise is that survivalists, the archetype of whom is a white male in his late 30s with two years of college and two children, are neither crazy nor dangerous, at least no more so than the general population from which they are drawn. Rather, they are rational members of an irrational society, a premise that reprises revisionist psychologist Thomas Szasz's theory that there is no mental illness, only a sick society.

The author's efforts to remake the stereotypical image of the backwoods eccentric backfire, however, for three reasons: He paints his subject with too broad a brush, fails to account for the delusional quality of most survivalists' beliefs, and posits a premise unsupported by sufficient research.

His central claim is that survivalists are more diverse than media reports have led us to believe. Yet he maintains that all survivalists, made up of groups as disparate as citizens' militias, tax and antigovernment protesters, former Y2K fearmongers, racial separatists, and extreme religionists (be they Muslim or Christian), share a common purpose: Possessing a surfeit of what they need to survive (money and all that it can buy), they are victims of modernity who are trying to create meaning out of meaningless lives.

Through their survivalism ideology, we're told, they "deconstruct," "reinvent," and "transform" accepted bodies of knowledge like science, politics, economics, and history into their own dramatic narratives and plan for an apocalypse that they wish would come. This, Mitchell suggests, is a proactive response to an existential dilemma.

But the author fails to differentiate between the "creative" narratives of white supremacists and citizens' militias, on the one hand, and the more prosaic prognostications of less dramatic and apocalyptic scenarios (such as Y2K), on the other. In his effort to portray all survivalists as harmless eccentrics, he ignores the fact that many of them could be diagnosed as suffering from delusional disorders.

Arguing that survivalists are dangerous only when they get bored with planning and talking, Mitchell cites as examples James Oliver Huberty, who, in 1984, walked into a MacDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro, Calif., and shot 40 people, killing 21, before turning a gun on himself, and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

He reasons that Huberty and McVeigh tired of talk and wanted action and therefore created their own chaos. But he fails to make the connection between survivalism's promotion of paranoia and the bizarre behavior and horrific crimes that flow from such thinking.

"Dancing at Armageddon" also suffers from lack of research, relying instead on Mitchell and his former wife's personal involvement in various survivalist organizations and a survey of 248 self-pronounced survivalists.

They taught survivalists cold-weather survival skills, edited a publication of a group known as the Mount Rainier Rangers, and participated in retreats of various types of survivalist groups. Such intimate exposure provides material for telling narratives, but generalization, rationalization, and justification are no substitute for hard data, rigorous analysis, and critical thinking.

In fact, survivalism is not the benign movement that Mitchell would have us believe. Doomsday predictions and apocalyptic prophecies are far more than acts of "creative ingenuity." Fear mongering has the potential for causing grave economic and psychological harm to the society from which survivalists have isolated themselves.

By dancing around the deleterious effect that survivalist thinking and behavior may have on those within and without their ranks, "Dancing at Armageddon" is disturbing and disingenuous. Mitchell deserves credit, however, for fashioning a theory about a phenomenon that deserves the serious research and analysis lacking in this work.

• Elaine Cassel practices law and teaches psychology and law in Virginia. She is the author, with Douglas Bernstein, of Criminal Behavior (Allyn & Bacon).

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