Alleged Pa. police ambush shooter called a survivalist. What's that?

The suspect in the Pennsylvania police barracks ambush is fueled by an antigovernment, off-the-grid brand of extremism, police have said. In that way, the case has echoes with the Atlanta Olympic bombing.

Michael J. Mullen/Scranton Times & Tribune/AP
Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan, speaking at a news conference in Blooming Grove Township, Pa., Tuesday, identified Eric Matthew Frein as the gunman who allegedly killed one trooper and injured another in a late-night ambush outside a state police barracks.

New details about Eric Matthew Frein, the alleged sniper in the Pennsylvania barracks ambush late Friday, suggest he may represent a rare, but stubborn live wire in American culture: the melding of survivalism and anarchy into violence against authority.

Pennsylvania state police officials acknowledge they still don’t have a motive for the attack on the Blooming Grove barracks, which left one officer dead and another one gravely wounded.

But they believe Mr. Frein “want[ed] to kill law-enforcement officers … commit mass acts of murder … and seems very angry with a lot of things that go on in our society,” in the words of Pennsylvania state police commissioner Frank Noonan.

Mr. Noonan has warned that Frein is armed, dangerous, and on the run.

For the most part, survivalists – or disaster-prepared “preppers,” as they like to call themselves – are interested mostly in indulging useful fantasies about “bug-out” packs and other necessary items to have and know how to use if there is a major societal disturbance that leads to uncontrolled unrest.

But their world view – which The Washington Post’s Justin Moyer describes as fusing “millennialism, Second Amendment and hard-money advocacy, environmentalism and racism” – can also lead some such thinkers into lonely, dark corners, where the ends may begin to justify the means, says one survivalism expert.

“There are rare but real dangers in the acts of a tiny minority of racists, antigovernment activists, and anarchist [attackers],” Richard Mitchell, author of “Dancing at Armageddon: Survivalism and Chaos in Modern Times,” said in an interview with the University of Chicago Press. “But when genuine violence and conflicts occur they come from outside survivalism, from … individuals separated not only from conventional associations but also from survivalist organizations that these individuals deem unfocused, equivocating, convocations of mere putter-planning.”

Described as a sharp-shooting, cop-hating survivalist by investigators who have combed his background and social media writings, Frein was identified after a hiker found his abandoned Jeep, which had gotten stuck as he tried to make a getaway. Inside were some bullet casings and Frein’s wallet, complete with IDs, as well as consular documents – perhaps evidence he had researched how to skip the country.

Frein's father, a decorated Army veteran, told police his son was a member of his high school competitive shooting team and "doesn't miss."

As the FBI’s five-year search for Atlanta Olympic bomber and self-described survivalist Eric Rudolph in the early 2000s proved, there are no guarantees that state police will locate Frein, who, like Mr. Rudolph, is apparently an experienced backwoodsman who had allegedly carefully planned the attack.

Rudolph spent nearly five years hiding from the FBI in the mountains of western North Carolina before being apprehended by a rookie cop who found him pilfering a grocery store dumpster. (Interestingly, some survivalists have dissed Rudolph’s skills, saying he received help from sympathizers in mountain towns.)

The evolution of the particular kind of American antigovernment, off-the-grid extremism that allegedly has fueled Frein, Rudolph, and others such as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh has been the focus of a lot of Department of Homeland Security attention, especially after the election of America’s first black president in 2008. 

Tensions between the government and self-reliant right-wing extremists occasionally have led to incidents like the federal cattle-fee standoff earlier this year at the Cliven Bundy ranch in Nevada. But such recent events, though some have been serious, have not risen to match conflagrations like Waco, Ruby Ridge, or the domestic terror bombing in Oklahoma City, which all occurred as the militia movement blossomed during the Clinton presidency.

The Blooming Grove barracks shootings, police say, seems to have been driven primarily by a so-far unexplained hatred of police. But reporters have also learned that injured Trooper Alex Douglass lives in the same apartment complex as Frein’s brother, Michael Frein.

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