Alabama bunker standoff: Did politics set Jimmy Dykes off?

After killing a school bus driver, retired Alabama truck driver Jimmy Dykes has held a 5-year-old boy hostage for five days in an underground tornado bunker. Neighbors say the act may be a provocative political statement.

Julie Bennett/AP
Law enforcement officials work the scene of an ongoing hostage crisis in Midland City, Ala. Local, state and federal officers wait out a man accused of shooting and killing a school bus driver, then snatching a 5-year-old child. Suspect Jimmy Lee Dykes has been holed up in a bunker on his property with the child since Tuesday.

A tense hostage situation involving a 5-year-old autistic boy and a menacing survivalist in rural Alabama is now stretching into its fifth day, as authorities continue to communicate with Jimmy Dykes through a pipe that extends into a dark, tight underground bunker.

But while authorities have remained largely mum, some in Midland City, Ala., who know Mr. Dykes are speculating that the former truck driver's brazen attack on a school bus, which ended with a school bus driver dead, and the subsequent kidnapping of a boy identified as Ethan, may be an anti-government act, sparked by a court case against him.

"I believe he wants to rant and rave about politics and government," neighbor Michael Creel told the Associated Press. "He's very concerned about his property. He doesn't want his stuff messed with."

The morphing of the burgeoning survivalist movement with government defiance certainly isn't widespread. But some experts, as well as the US Department of Homeland Security, have speculated that, for some, survivalism as an ideology can spill over into anti-government zealotry and raise the specter of domestic terrorism.

Dykes had been preparing for some kind of action as he built his bunker and often patrolled his property with a rifle deep into the night. He had told neighbors the sunken bunker was intended as a tornado shelter.

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The ordeal in Midland City, Alabama, began Tuesday afternoon when police say Dykes stormed a rural school bus, demanding two young boys. Dykes killed a bus driver trying to protect the children, and then made off with a boy named Ethan, scurrying him into the bunker behind his house.

Police have maintained contact through a PVC pipe, and have been able to get Ethan medicine as well as coloring books. Police confirmed Dykes' identity on Friday.

The survivalist movement has gained steam in recent years as many Americans fear economic or political apocalypse, a trend now accompanied by TV shows like "Doomsday Preppers" about people who build bunkers and stash food in preparation for disaster.

While on the whole peaceful, and in many ways understandable, the movement has also contributed to a simmering paranoia that has subsumed some adherents.

"How do you know if you are preparing to survive and overcome realistic scenario or just obsessing with doom and gloom, maybe even focusing on very unlikely or even impossible scenarios while ignoring much more realistic and more probable events? It’s a thin line. People have obsessed and ended up losing not only their time and money, but also their families because of this," blogger FerFAL wrote on The Modern Survivalist blog last year.

Survivalism has been tied to violence recently. Nancy Lanza, the slain mother of Newtown, Conn., school shooter Adam Lanza, was known to friends as a survivalist who had stocked up on firearms and food in anticipation of a social and economic meltdown. Last year, a survivalist in Washington State, Peter Keller, killed his wife and daughter before holing up in a multi-storied wilderness bunker, where he was eventually found dead by police.

Known as "Mean Man" to some of his neighbors, Dykes' behavior had long raised concerns. The underground hostage standoff may have been sparked by a scheduled court hearing for an incident in December where Dykes fired shots at neighbors after a yelling match where he claimed the neighbors’ truck damaged a speed bump along the dirt road where he lives. Dykes was charged by police with menacing, a misdemeanor.

"People who live near Mr. Dykes consider him a neighbor from hell," writes blogger Jim Fisher, on the True Crime blog. "Paranoid, combative, and violent, Dykes, pursuant to a variety of neighborhood disputes and feuds, has threatened to shoot people. He has been seen patrolling his property at night with a flashlight and a shotgun. … If convicted of the misdemeanor, the judge could sentence the loner and survivalist up to six months in jail."

But police have also speculated that Dykes' motivations run deeper.

“His friends and his neighbors stated that he did not trust the government, that he was a Vietnam vet, and that he had PTSD,” Dale County investigator Tim Byrd told the Southern Poverty Law Center's Hatewatch blog. “He was standoffish, didn’t socialize or have any contact with anybody. He was a survivalist type.”

On the other hand, media coverage of Dykes as a "loner" and "survivalist" may itself be part of a broader conspiracy intended to justify gun confiscation for certain kinds of people, worries the website, which is run by Alex Jones.

"Will anyone who wants to install a bunker in their backyard, or wants to buy storable food be labeled suspect for such activities because of this one psycho’s antics?" one Infowars blog posted this week noted. "You betcha."

Responding to the Southern Poverty Law Center's Hatewatch blog, commenter Cindy Bidwell Glaze also raised concerns about tying the acts of a single person to a broad, decentralized movement.

"His contacts with the law have been individual contacts of a violent person, not the kind that connect a person to a movement or terrorist organization," she writes. "How does this connect to a national audience? There are people out there who are unusual and violent in every community. There is, to the best of my knowledge no organization that binds them."

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