Survivalism, Apocalyptic Aggression, and Violence
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 12:39:36 PM EST
Adam Lanza carried out an act of apocalyptic violence in Connecticut, killing 28 people and wounding another victim. Most of those dead were children…most were just six years old.

We may never know Adam’s motivations. The troubled man's aunt told a reporter that Adam's mother Nancy was “something of a survivalist” and “she worried about economic collapse and had been stockpiling." Nancy Lanza had a collection of guns, including a Bushmaster rifle and at least two automatic pistols. We cannot ask his mother why her son became a murderer because apparently Nancy Lanza was Adams first victim.

Fears of an upcoming economic collapse or other doomsday scenarios are widespread given media attention to the absurd claim that an ancient Mayan calendar predicts the end of time at the end of December. Other speculative theories place the blame for the end of time on a variety of causes.

There are threads connecting survivalism, apocalyptic aggression, and violence, but they need sorting out. First of all, be aware that most people who practice survivalism and most people who have apocalyptic beliefs do not act out in violence.

Mitt Romney is a survivalist as are all devout members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Mormons are mandated by their religion to keep a cache of food, water, and other survival supplies. Given a history of violence against Mormons being pushed out of their homes by angry vigilantes, this is not merely a strange quirk.

Given the widespread media speculation about Adam Lanza’s psychological health, it needs to be said that most people who suffer from some form of mental illness do not act out in violence. Most of the media babble about Lanza’s mental illness is not supported by psychological research much less a real diagnosis.
Let's look at these elements one-by-one.


Many religions are built around some form of apocalyptic belief and the vast majority of practitioners do not commit violent acts.

In its most generic sense apocalyptic belief is built around a cluster of ideas:

•    There is a upcoming confrontation between good and evil

•    The clock is ticking and time is running out

•    During the confrontation hidden truths will be revealed

•    Afterwards the world will be transformed

The words "apocalypse," "prophecy," and "revelation" are all derived from the same basic Greek word which means the unveiling of that which is hidden. Thus in the Bible the Book of Revelation is also called the Apocalypse of John. As it happens most scholars now conclude this John was not the John who was a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, but a guy who lived in the cave and had visions decades after the events described in the Gospels.

Conspiracy Theories

Christianity is built around an apocalyptic belief, and while most Christians do not weave these religious views into conspiracy theories, some do, especially in the United States. Millions of Americans, especially Christian fundamentalists, scan current events for signs of the approaching end times. For some this involves looking for evidence that trusted political and religious leaders have become secret agents of Satan who is plotting a worldwide conflagration pitting godly Christians against the Devil’s disciples. The expected upcoming battle is an apocalyptic event-- and this doomsday battle of Armageddon might result in the end of time or the victory of God who scourges earth free from nonbelievers and establishes a millennium of peace.

Visit a Christian bookstore and you are likely to find many titles explaining in elaborate detail a variety of conflicting end times scenarios. Traditionally among black Christians this Apocalypse reveals the hidden truth that racism is a sin leading white Christians to repent and reuniting the body of Christ to the church into one triumphant religious utopia. The rhetoric of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reflected this idea of justice being the outcome of the Apocalypse. Over a century ago Frederick Douglass drew from the same biblical sources to construct his rhetoric against slavery.

Today an apocalyptic view surprisingly widespread among white Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals is that the battle of Armageddon will occur in their lifetimes, and that president Obama and his liberal allies are agents of Satan. Hard to believe? A September 2009 poll in New Jersey found that 14% of Republicans believed that President Obama was the Antichrist—Satan’s chief sidekick in the End Times according to one reading of the Bible’s Book of Revelation. Another 15% thought it might be possible. Scholar Robert Fuller calls “naming the Antichrist” an “American Obsession.” Scholar Paul Boyer has studied the confluence of apocalyptic belief and conspiracy theories, and has warned that apocalyptic belief plays a significant yet seldom discussed role in shaping US policies in the Middle East.

Several scholars have studied the political role of conspiracy thinking in the contemporary United States, including Michael Barkun and Robert Alan Goldberg. Scholars Richard Hofstadter and David H. Bennett have penned historic accounts.


Survivalism is an apocalyptic view (with both religious and secular proponents), that advocates gathering and storing large supplies of food, water, and medicine, in anticipation of economic collapse, social unrest, or the Tribulations. Some adherents also purchase gold and other precious metals as a hedge against currency devaluation; and some acquire weapons.

During the administration of President Clinton, at a time of millennial excitement prior to the turn of the calendar for the year 2000, survivalist preparations became a mass phenomenon in the United States. Scholar Philip Lamy studied this, and in 1996 wrote a book on “Millennium Rage: Survivalists, White Supremacists, and the Doomsday Prophecy.” There was a confluence of survivalism, apocalyptic expectation, and conspiracy theories involving liberal subversion and treason. Republican operatives exploited this and helped spread the conspiracy theories into the major corporate media.

Survivalism, often tied to conspiracy theories, became big business and even the History Channel began producing shows speculating about a variety of conspiracies. This continues to this day, and feeds back into the survivalist movement, especially on the website of the Connecticut Survivalist Alliance (CSA). The website of CSA not only stresses survivalism, but also gun ownership and training. The website is awash in racist attacks on President Obama and vile Islamophobic images and text.

People who take their apocalyptic fears seriously can react in three ways:

•    Passive: Wait in patience or prayer for the expected confrontation.

•    Preparative: Collect supplies and perhaps form groups to resist negative outcomes of the expected confrontation (this is the basis of survivalism).

•    Aggressive: Why wait? We must act before it is too late!

The aggressive mode can turn inward, resulting in individual or mass suicides. This is what happened with the Heaven’s Gate group that saw the approaching Hale-Bopp comet as a sign of their apocalyptic transformation into a higher life form.  It also was what occurred at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas; but only after US government officials rejected pleas from a number of scholars of apocalyptic thinking that their crude and provocative tactics could lead to many deaths.

Government law enforcement officials have repeatedly misunderstood apocalyptic belief. In Waco and the incident at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, this caused needless deaths. At the same time some government analysts have over-generalized about gun enthusiasts, survivalists, armed militia members, and a variety of right-wing groups in ways that conflate beliefs with methodology and threaten civil liberties -- even using agents provocateurs to encourage illegal planning for violent acts.

Apocalyptic Aggression and Violence

The merger of conspiracism with apocalypticism often generates aggressive forms of dualism.

Apocalyptic Aggression can occur when demonized scapegoats are targeted as enemies of the “common good,” a dynamic that can lead to discrimination and attacks. Apocalyptic fears about impending economic collapse can trigger apocalyptic aggression, although there is not enough information to tie this to the shootings in Connecticut.

The linkages among apocalypticism, masculinist rage, and violence have been studied by scholar Lee Quinby. Scholars Mattia Gardell and Julie Ingersol wrote of this connection in essays on Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who was found sane enough to be convicted. Scholar Mark Juergensmeyer called Breivik a "Christian Terrorist."

Superhero Complex

We need to unpack the concepts of "constitutive rhetoric"; the vilification, demonization, and scapegoating of a named "Other," coded rhetorical incitement by demagogues; the relationship between conspiracism and apocalyptic aggression; and the process of scripted violence by which a leader need not directly exhort violence to create a constituency that hears a call to take action against the named enemy. These processes can and do motivate some individuals to adopt a "superhero complex" which justifies their pre-emptive acts of violence or terrorism to "save society" from imminent threats by named enemies "before it is too late."

I wrote about this at length in “Terrorism, Politics, Mental Illness, and Superhero Complex,” after the mass terrorist shootings at the Colorado theater.

"Terrorists embody a “Superhero Complex….” A number of terrorists in the US fall into that pattern. Stressor factors that can create a Superhero Complex that leads to violence can include zealous political goals, anxiety over changing racial, gender, or religious dynamics, a sense of being persecuted, fear and depression over collapsing economic viability, a belief in conspiracy theories of impending attack by dark forces, or other factors. For Salvi, Loughner, and Breivik, stress was focused on targeted scapegoats by right-wing fearmongering from marginal sources and demonization of liberal ideas.

"The claim of mental illness in a terrorist is often used incorrectly, and sometimes used to dismiss any societal motivating factors in a violent act. Most people who struggle with mental illness do not act out in violence. Some convicted terrorists said to be “obviously” mentally ill do not have a diagnostic condition recognized by the medical community; while juries convict terrorists who display clear signs of mental distress. What if the few terrorists who are mentally ill are like the mine canaries, warning us of something toxic spreading the fumes of anxiety through our society?"

What really happened?

We don't know. We may never know.

We hear from television pundits (with no evidence except the power of their own ego and their delight from basking in their 20 minutes of fame) that Adam may have been motivated by some neo-Freudian Oedipal rage to kill his mother; and then he killed the children in the school because early reports linked her to the school as maybe a substitute teacher. This claim of a tie to the school turned out not to be true.

Can we speculate? Sure. Speculation is protected by the First Amendment. I’m not saying any of this is true. Trust me.

Maybe Adam heard voices from God, a space alien, or other vocal interior commander instructing him to kill his mother and as many students as he could shoot.

Maybe Adam was sparing his mother and the students from the horrors and tortures of Satan's end times attack described in delicious detail by dozens of Christian right conspiracy authors. Maybe it wasn't Satan but Obama ordering jackbooted UN troops to impose tyranny and enslave America-- a theory popular during the militia movement of the 1990s—and carried on today by right-wing (and some left wing) conspiracy cranks. Maybe it was the fear that radical Muslims were about to impose Sharia Law, a bigoted conspiracy spread by Newt Gingrich whose appearance on network television as a commentator is stark evidence of the triumph of commercialism and sensationalism over morality.

Maybe Adam was motivated by the sense of emasculation peddled daily by right-wing television, radio, and Internet celebrities who tell men they have been politically castrated by feminists, and that liberalism is directed by a cadre of Marxist lesbians who have taken over the nation's universities. Is it a coincidence that these superhero complex terrorists are all men?

It is clear that as the television networks gain viewers by broadcasting tragedy porn from outside the school in Connecticut, there is already an attempt to spin the story as a case of mental illness that negates any call for a national conversation on gun control.

We need such a conversation. Just as we need conversations about gender panic and male identity, an issue that has long been with us but which accelerated after the United States lost the war in Vietnam. See, for example, Scholar James William Gibson's "Warrior Dreams: Violence and Manhood in Post-Vietnam America." Scholar Jerry Lembcke has written three volumes about this issue. Both belong on television talking about this tragedy along with the other scholars mentioned in this essay, with their expertise on apocalyptic thinking, conspiracy theories, gender, and violence.

In this season when so many religions contemplate peace along with all people of good conscience let us step back and look at some of these larger issues. And let us remember that families and friends who lost loved ones whose names are listed below.

•    Allison N. Wyatt, 6 •    Ana Marquez-Greene, 6 •    Anne Marie Murphy, 52, teacher •    Avielle Richman, 6 •    Benjamin Wheeler, 6 •    Caroline Previdi, 6 •    Catherine Violet Hubbard, 6 •    Charlotte Bacon, 6 •    Chase Kowalski, 7 •    Daniel Barden, 7 •    Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, 47, principal •    Dylan Hockley, 6 •    Emilie Parker, 6 •    Grace McDonnell, 6 •    Jack Pinto, 6 •    James Mattioli, 6 •    Jesse Lewis, 6 •    Jessica Rekos, 6 •    Josephine Gay, 7 •    Lauren Rousseau, 30, teacher •    Madeline F. Hsu, 6 •    Mary Sherlach, 56, school psychologist •    Nancy Lanza, 52, perpetrator's mother •    Noah Pozner, 6 •    Olivia Engel, 6 •    Rachel Davino, 29, teacher •    Victoria Soto, 27, teacher

Several reports mention that Adam Lanza's mother pulled him out of public school for the sake of home schooling him instead.  If this is true then to what extent (if any) did fundamentalist doctrine play in his upbringing?

Whenever I hear about a child being home-schooled, the first thing that comes to mind is an education curriculum consisting of A Beka Books.  

by LupusGreywalker on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 03:06:51 PM EST

It's natural that all the adults killed were women: most of the adults present at an elementary school are. Twelve of the twenty murdered children were girls. This may have been a coincidence. Yet I have heard enough murderous rumble from the manosphere to wonder if this pipsqueak thought he was asserting his masculinity like this.

by Rey Mohammed on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 08:41:17 PM EST
I wonder if there were any men or boys passed up in this blasphemy, it would strengthen my suspicions.  I believe that if examined, there will be a common thread or train of thought which links this atrocity to the one in Norway and to others - anytime we have an adult shooting up a school full of kids in fact.

(Situations where the shooter used to be a student should be left out, because there is just too much chance of it being a delayed reaction to severe bullying (or something similar).  Those should be examined separately.)

The fact is, we need to work on this culture and not throw bandaids around.  We can deal with bullying and reduce that cause (there are programs that WORK available), but we need to know a lot more about the thinking and reasoning (or lack thereof) that leads to things like this, so hopefully we can develop ways to identify and stop the perps before anyone gets hurt.  There had to be some points where this guy broadcasted his intentions in some way and someone missed it.

We also need to avoid overreacting.  There were problems in the past that lead to a "no tolerance" policy in a school system where I had a contract for working on their machinery.  I came very close to going to jail one time because I had a special knife I carried with me all the time, especially in the field... it was very useful and I used it nearly every day for things like scraping crud off of the ways of machine tools (so I could clean and properly lube/treat them).  If they had looked in my tool case, they'd have gone into a panic because of all of the sharp and pointed objects (and weird-looking electronics) I always carried.  The policy that nearly got me arrested (and ended up costing me the contract) was in response to a knife being brought by a student onto a school campus.  (I think the same school system expelled an A student because she brought a butter knife in her lunch kit - to spread stuff on sandwiches.)  

There is a big clampdown planned for the schools down here when they start up again, and I think that a good idea... copycats do occur, and with a few rare exceptions (which can be "permitted" if they occur), guns don't belong on school grounds anyway.  How far they take things... we will have to wait and see.

by ArchaeoBob on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 11:08:19 PM EST

I would like to share this excellent analysis, but before I do, could you please check places where the wording simply does not make sense:

Third bullet point under Apocalypse - "During the confrontation didn't truths will be revealed" - should "didn't" be "hidden"?

End of first paragraph under Conspiracy Theories - "or the victory of God goose scourges earth free from nonbelievers and establishes a millennium of peace" - I can't begin to guess what "goose" might be intended to be.

Paragraph immediately above Survivalism - "plays a significant it seldom discussed" - I believe "it" should be "if."

End of second paragraph after Survivalism - "Republican operatives such chance to exploit this" - It appears that a word or phrase is missing.

First paragraph under Apocalyptic Aggression and Violence - "The linkages apocalypticism, masculinist rage, and violence has been studied by scholar Lee Quinby." - This probably should be "The linkages among apocalypticism, masculinist rage, and violence have been studied by scholar Lee Quinby."

Second paragraph under What Really Happened? - "to kill his mother and his many students as he could shoot" - It appears that the second "his" should be "as."

Third paragraph under What Really Happened? - "Marxist lesbians with taken over the nation's universities" - Change "with" to "who have."

Thank you.

by MLouise on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 10:16:10 PM EST
I was in a hurry and failed to read it carefully enough. Thanks for catching the mistakes.
_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 11:16:59 PM EST
Thanks so much. I just shared this on Facebook.

by MLouise on Mon Dec 17, 2012 at 10:06:41 AM EST

Chip... besides the obvious "glitches" that others have picked up on, this was a well thought out and written piece.

I hadn't considered a link between the apocalyptic beliefs and what happened.  I think it possible.  I also think that "Religious Right" rhetoric also will prove to have a lot to do with this, but how much so remains to be seen.  I'm more concerned about the reaction of law enforcement - they do have a big measure of "But it's a CHURCH, it can't be THAT BAD" in their makeup and have ignored religious connections in the past (with the big-news cases as well as the local stuff like has happened to us).  We may find out (as with Matthew Murray) that the (dominionist) churches were actually very much to blame for what happened, but that wasn't considered or reported.

As a side note - we get a lot of "The world is ending on December 21", but archaeologists (especially those who study the Mayan people), the Maya themselves (they still exist and some -maybe many- of their elders are in a word PISSED at the misconstruing of something from THEIR culture), and other scholars and educators have been trying to squelch that nonsense.  

by ArchaeoBob on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 11:18:26 PM EST

Not to defend the indefensible, but I think one needs to be careful about jumping on the families of some of these mass murderers who clearly (in retrospect) have serious mental disorders.

As many other people have already said, the U.S. is very poorly equipped for dealing with the many, many people in this country who suffer from mental illness.  Not only is there still a stigma among many as well as a lot of ignorance about what various types of mental illnesses are and what can--and cannot--be done about them, but even if you know that your family member is in trouble (e.g., preoccupied with delusional thinking, filled with rage, either in general or directed at specific people or groups), there isn't much you can do about it.  I suppose if you are rich, you can perhaps manage to pay for hospitalization (and get the person committed), but because of abuses in the past, you can't simply shut people away anymore (which is a good thing in many cases).

But what about families that don't have unlimited resources?  I know a few people who have very disturbed (and in a couple cases, scarily disturbed) family members who have spent just about all their money on treatment, and the sick family member isn't cured and may be dangerous (most mentally ill people aren't dangerous, but some are).  Until the family member does something awful and the legal system gets involved, the rest of the family has very little ability to do anything.  And these are the families that recognize that there is a problem and are trying to do something.

Then you have family matrices that are toxic or dysfunctional, and add to or exacerbate organically based personality disorders; in these cases, family members who, given the right support, may have been learned to channel their frustrations and rage are simply flagged down a path of distruction.

Finally, you have some families where parents are oblivious, often because they view the kid through rose-colored glasses or actively refuse to acknowledge to themselves or anyone else just how bad the towering rages and cruelty the family member routinely displays is.  I know about this because I've seen it in my own extended family.  And then there are some family members who just cannot see their loved one as severely disturbed and potentially dangerous because they are nice, trusting (if foolish) souls who can't imagine that the kid they love could have gone so wrong (or if they have an inkling, they hope that the kid will "pull out of it.")

I've watched family member and friends go through this struggle, and frankly, considering the lack of professional support (unless you have mega bucks to spend) is both astonishing and heartbreaking.  When I see the parents of some of the mass murderers who have cropped up over the past 20 years, I think about some close family members and a few friends, who very easily could be have faced by the same questions, condemnation, and TV cameras.  We need to make it easier, as a society, to work with families and intervene in cases of severe mental illness.

It is my understanding that the mother of the Sandy Hook shooter was a "gun nut."  If so, that may have made guns more accessible to her son.  But we don't know yet what his problems were or what she tried to do for him (or whether she understood his problems).

Personally, I have very little use for guns.  Police should have them, hunters can have them (although they tend to use rifles or shotguns if they use fire arms), but I don't believe that having MORE guns leads to anything more than MORE shootings.  And although the Sandy Hook shooter could have used a knife or a baseball bat to kill with, I doubt he would have been able to kill anywhere near as many as he ultimately did.  The U.S. has a real problem in regard to guns, and I hope that someday, we can solve it.  The politicians who think otherwise are a bunch of cowboy wannabes.

But in the meantime, we need to help families understand and deal with mental illness and provide interventions that work--and that in the case of the severely ill, get them off the streets--if we are to make a dent in this type of public violence.

by coralsea on Mon Dec 17, 2012 at 12:57:00 AM EST

Re Apocalyptic thinking. The back story in the following article is that rogue elements made off with some hydrogen bombs from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota in 2007:

Press TV: US military planned mutiny on the Bounty to topple Obama ned-mutiny-on-the-bounty-to-topple-obama/

Re the evil murders / mass shootings:

It seems that the words "AURORA" and "SANDY HOOK" make brief appearances at different points during the movie Dark Knight Rises:

WOW !! SANDY HOOK & AURORA In BATMAN Movie ! Make Viral This is a SET UP !!! URORA_In_BATMAN_Movie_Make_ViralThis_is_a_SET_UP

Gotham-map-Dark-Knight-Rises : Gotham City Archives ("SANDY HOOK" printed on map) rk-knight-rises

Facebook user David J Wood claims to have verified the above sightings via his copy of Dark Knight Rises: o.6499393458&type=1&ref=nf


by MIJ6VI on Mon Dec 17, 2012 at 08:49:29 AM EST

An interesting aticke but it would have been better if there was some empirical evidence to back up the claims being made.
It fails to explain similar attrocities that have been occuring in China when young men have attacked school children (with knives rather than guns). There is no apocalyptic tradition that account for those actions in that culture... I would think that the male disposition to commit violent acts against children and women needs to be explored for a better explanation of these tragic events.

by PastorJennifer on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 09:08:30 AM EST
According to Quinby, This type of apocalypticism is complementary to a masculinist and authoritarian model of behavior.She obseves that  among some right-wing groups "the reassertion of masculinist hierarchy is being cast in terms of apocalyptic avowals of (heterosexist) family values and the New World Order".

In Anti-Apocalypse Quinby stakes out the most negative view, warning that "Apocalypticism in each of its modes fuels discord, breeds anxiety or apathy, and sometimes causes panic," and that this process can occur at the individual, community, national, or international level. What makes apocalypse so compelling," argues Quinby," is the "will to absolute power and knowledge that produces its compulsions of violence, hatred, and oppression."  

Apocalypticism in the generic sense is found in all but a few cultures, as Elaine Pagels has observed, noting that it long ago escaped the boundaries of religion.

_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 09:19:00 AM EST
The connection between apocalypticism and masculinist authoritarian modes of behavior is interesting Chip, and I would appreciate a reference to the work of Quinby that you refer to.
However, what evidence is there that the perpetrators of the atrocities that have been commited in our schools had a commitment to apocalyptic beliefs? That, I believe, is the necessary link you need to establish to give your theory more credibility. That apocalypticism has become detached from religious beliefs, as claimed by Pagels, doesn't mean that it was the instigating factor in the recurring and shocking episodes of violence that have occurred in schools in the US, Germany, Scotland and China.

by PastorJennifer on Tue Jan 01, 2013 at 05:13:44 PM EST

Chip's assertion that the Branch Davidians at Waco committed mass suicide is at variance with every other published account that I have seen, all of which claim that the Davidians died in a shoot-out with federal agents who charged their compound. Does Chip have actual evidence to back his assertion, or is it merely [gasp] a conspiracy theory?

by Mari on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 02:01:43 PM EST

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Frederick Clarkson (3 comments)
Republican infighting in Mississippi
After a bruising GOP runoff election for U.S. Senator, current MS Senator Thad Cochran has retained his position and will face Travis Childers (Democrat) in the next senate election. The MS GOP is fractured......
COinMS (4 comments)
America's Most Convenient Bank® refuses to serve Christians
Representatives of a well known faith-based charitable organization were refused a New Jersey bank’s notarization service by an atheist employee. After inquiring about the nature of the non-profit organization and the documents requiring......
Jody Lane (9 comments)
John Benefiel takes credit for GOP takeover of Oklahoma
Many of you know that Oklahoma has turned an unrecognizable shade of red in recent years.  Yesterday, one of the leading members of the New Apostolic Reformation all but declared that he was responsible......
Christian Dem in NC (4 comments)

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