In just 56 days, the year 2000 will be celebrated jubilantly around the world as no New Year ever has. But the coming turn of the calendar also is being watched closely for signs of violent behavior, including domestic terrorism.
Some of this concern is based on religious apocalyptic thinking tied to the Christian calendar. Part of it is linked to the Y2K computer problem, which some extremists see as a key element in the conspiracy to bring about "one world government."
Tying together these links between very old theology and very new technology, the FBI reported this week that "militias, adherents of racist belief systems,... and other radical domestic extremists are clearly focusing on the millennium as a time of action."
"Certain individuals from these various perspectives are acquiring weapons, storing food and clothing, raising funds through fraudulent means,... preparing compounds, surveying potential targets, and recruiting new converts," warns the FBI, the result of which is that "acts of violence in commemoration of the millennium are just as likely to occur as not."
There also are connections to hate groups, especially virulent anti-Semites - a major concern to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and other Jewish groups. While noting that "most Christians welcome the approaching millennium with a sense of renewal," the ADL also warned recently that the most extreme millennialist Christians "see the Jews solely as the embodiment of evil, plotting with the Antichrist to destroy the world."
Reflecting these concerns, Israeli officials last week detained and said they would deport 20 members of apocalyptic Christian groups cited as threats to public safety.
Thirteen of the 20 are Americans. This is the third group of Christian zealots ordered out by Israel, which is concerned about potential troublemakers drawn to Jesus' birthplace at the end of the millennium.
"There is no question that a large number of extremists have pegged the year 2000 as a critical date," reports the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which tracks hate groups, militias, and other radical movements. "For many, it will be the time when Christian patriots, the 'children of light,' must do battle with the satanic 'forces of darkness.' "
Three recent incidents seem to bear this out. The man charged in the August shootings at a Jewish day-care center in Los Angeles, the man who killed two minorities and wounded 10 in Indiana and Illinois before taking his own life, and the man convicted in the dragging death of a black man in Jasper, Texas, all spoke of a "racial holy war" tied to the millennium.
Experts see a pattern in such attacks.
"Given the already-evident tendency toward apocalyptic scapegoating as we approach the year 2000, it is entirely predictable that more people will be targeted as evil agents of the satanic 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," says Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a private research organization in Somerville, Mass.
Armageddon as a race war against nonwhites and Jews is prophesied by many white supremacists, including Richard Butler, head of the Aryan Nations group in Hayden Lake, Idaho. In his novel "The Turner Diaries," William Pierce, head of the white supremacy group National Alliance, describes such a war along with the violent overthrow of the federal government.
The book is thought to have inspired Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as well as the 1980s extremist group known as The Order.
In the minds of some extremists, such predictions are connected with eschatology, defined by the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University as "the belief that God will bring an end to history and resolve the problem of evil with a Last Judgment."
Often this is tied to a literal (critics would say perverted) view of the New Testament Book of Revelation as predicting the end of the world or "End Time."
Some groups thought to be potentially dangerous see the significance of the new millennium in political rather than religious terms. Here, the belief is that the Y2K computer bug may be a ploy to bring about the "New World Order" (a synonym for one-world government) involving a conspiracy of Jews, Communists, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, and the United Nations.
"Reaction to the Y2K problem on the extreme fringes of the right has varied widely, usually depending on the religious or ideological bent of each group," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report, a quarterly analysis of political extremism and bias crimes in the US.
"Probably the most consistent theme has been a survivalist one, with ideologues warning that people must prepare for the worst. And entrepreneurs around the country have leapt to take advantage of these fears, offering for sale everything from dried foods to underground bunkers."
FBI officials this week met with law-enforcement agencies nationwide. While the threat of domestic attack is considered real, it is hard to pin down.
"The overwhelming majority of extremist groups in the US have adopted a fragmented, leaderless structure where individuals or small groups act with autonomy," according to the FBI. This was the method used by Mr. McVeigh in Oklahoma City.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society