Dancing at Armageddon

Richard Mitchell's Dancing at Armageddon: Survivalism and Chaos in Modern Times is an inside look at the survivalist culture in the USA. Mitchell's remarks, in light of current events, are based on research over a seventeen-year period—principally participant observation and extended correspondence—among survivalists at private meetings, public conferences, and paramilitary training camps in eight states and two Canadian provinces from British Columbia to Tennessee.

Read an excerpt from the book.



An interview with
Richard G. Mitchell Jr.
author of Dancing at Armageddon: Survivalism and Chaos in Modern Times

Question: Who or what is a survivalist? Theodore Kaczynski? Timothy McVeigh?

Answer: Survivalists are more and less than you might think. They are more common and diverse than often depicted in the popular press. During my years of research, I met survivalist lawyers as well as loggers, movie executives and physicians as well as manual laborers. And they are often less fearsome than we have been led to believe.

But to really understand survivalism, you have to first distinguish between talk and action. Survivalists mostly talk. Real danger starts only when they stop talking. Survivalism centers on crafting homegrown tales of coming calamities—economic collapse, natural disaster, foreign invasion, even race war—in which survivalists are central to resistance and recovery. The heart of survivalism lies not in practiced violence, confrontations, or woodsy retreatism but in fantasy role-playing, creative if not concrete problem-solving in imaginary worlds, where troubled times can be adequately met with a few simple principles, the tools and resources at hand, and a will to work. Survivalism may provide limited practical protection from real hazards, but it offers plentiful opportunities to demonstrate creative ingenuity.

Question:What are the hallmarks of survivalism? Are survivalists dangerous?

Answer: Survivalism is optimistic, not fearful. In survivalist scenarios what you have is what you need. The anticipated troubles ahead will come only when survivalists are ready and only in the forms for which they are prepared. Preparations vary; optimism is constant. Those who hoard valuables envision fiscal instability, those with guns talk of invaders and marauders, those with shelters attend to the possibilities of nuclear fallout and biochemical attack. In survivalism, needs are neatly balanced against abilities and material at hand. Life is challenging, not overwhelming or dull.

Are they dangerous? Survivalism is no grand folie a deux, the psychiatric peculiarity of "shared madness." For the most part survivalists recognize the game-like quality of their actions. Most survivalists do not bomb or shoot or disrupt the civil order. Instead they read, debate, practice a little, inspect their equipment, reorganize their supplies, revise their plans, and write to friends, month after month, year after year. Items of equipment that alarm non-survivalists, such as camouflage clothing or high capacity weapons, should be understood in context. These are not everyday tools of a practiced trade, not utilitarian necessities for survivalism, but parts of an extended costume, symbols of commitment and indications of well-planned, ordered readiness. It is those few individuals who don't join in survivalist dress-up and story telling, who don't share their scenarios and plans with family members or a few friends or pen pals that pose real dangers.

There are dangerous individuals among us. There are rare but real dangers in the acts of a tiny minority of racists, anti-government activists, and anarchist bombers. But when genuine violence and conflicts occur they come from outside survivalism, from isolates, individuals separated not only from conventional associations but also from survivalist organizations that these individuals deem unfocused, equivocating, convocations of mere putter-planning. Timothy McVeigh, for example, was not in thrall to the Michigan Militia or the Militia of Montana or the Aryan Nations, but in revolt from their ilk, frustrated by their unwillingness to do more than wait and whine while peddling tapes and booklets and newsletter subscriptions. McVeigh read William Pierce's racist novel The Turner Diaries but also Spengler, and the Bible. He attended meetings, heard speeches. However, long before it came time to act he broke away from the survivalist community, such as it was, where he found nothing more consequent than endless talk and improbable plans. He formed his own "leaderless cell." And stayed there until he died.

Question: The FBI now says that the person who mailed anthrax to Senator Tom Daschle's office, the New York Post, and NBC News is mostly likely an American, a loner, someone like Timothy McVeigh or the Unabomber, Kaczynski. As one who has been observing and living with fringe groups for twenty years do you agree with the likelihood of that?

Answer: Here is one of those genuinely dangerous individuals. The anthrax attacks clearly appear to be the work of a domestic assailant in view of both the targets ("liberal" politicians, "immoral" publishers, and the media) and the methods (low-tech distribution of probably old military bioweapon materials).

I would concur that he (and I use the term advisedly for the attacker is almost certainly a male) is an isolate, not a participant member of any so-called group, network, cell, or other active organization real or imaginary. He may subscribe to fringe newsletters and periodicals, and may have visited public meetings or heard speakers dubbed marginal by mainstream critics. But his preparations and actions are his own. He is likely an avid if not adroit reader of history, political and economic philosophy, and the like. The public views him as a criminal, but he likely defines himself quite differently. He sees himself as an insightful realist—a diligent and careful researcher who has uncovered startling truths and subtle trends in foreign and domestic politics, economics, sociology, even science. And once these hidden truths are revealed he weaves them into a cohesive narrative, a story that connects unobvious and obscure occurrences in what he sees as a neat new worldview. He is very proud of this scenario story and very protective of it.

Question: Our homegrown terrorists have typically been persons operating alone, not terrorist cells or groups. Why is that the case?

Answer: Why are these assailants loners? First, because few will join them. These assailants' ideas and actions are abhorrent to most Americans. Finding like-minded others is improbable. I saw this over and over in my field studies. Survivalists are highly tolerant of others' conspiratorial claims. Stories of plots and pending hazards are readily welcomed into survivalist conversation and planning. But calls for proactive and intentional violence are shunned or rejected outright. Even in the midst of para-military training sessions care was taken to characterize enemies as outside aggressors; survivalists as local defenders, protectors, guardians (albeit on reduced turf and terms).

Second, loners seek to protect what they view as valued but fragile intellectual property. The loner invests much effort in making his idiosyncratic sense of the world. He is loath to risk rejection or ridicule from unbelievers. To avoid the disappointment of disbelief the lone assailant keeps his scenario and the actions that go with it to himself.

Question: Do you think it is possible that there may be American terrorist cells or groups that would engage in action? Is that what happened with the anthrax letters?

Answer: Terrorist cells or groups in our midst? Perhaps. The Order was real enough, as were the activities of tax protestor Gordon Kahl. Anti-abortion terrorists have bombed and killed in recent years, and the past century was marred by recurring planned violence against minorities and civil rights advocates.

But it must be said that popular culture often overreaches reality. Survivalists are not the only persons who enjoy a good conspiracy tale. Supermarket tabloids, television docudramas, the X-Files, and AM talk shows all offer what-if and might-be musings rich in tenuous but titillating assumptions and conjecture. The notion of shadowy, hidden networks of secret power is a venerable entertainment theme. Villains scheme to co-opt or corrode national control and security in Seven Days in May, The Twilight's Last Gleaming, The Company, or humorously, Dr. Strangelove. A generation of Americans ponders the hypothetical assassins of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Hollywood phantasmagoria of a "Dark Force" from the "Evil Empire" were implicit parts of U.S. foreign policy during the Reagan administration. In this tradition, the notion of "terrorist cells" and other subsurface machinators is right at home. But empirical support for these notions is thin and fleeting. Among survivalists, what passes for "groups" are short-lived, irregular, potluck and show-and-tell sessions among family and friends, or, most often, mail-order membership subscription lists for newsletters or magazines and once or twice a year campouts or public conferences.

On September 11, 2001 two widely-recognized American icons were damaged and destroyed, and as many as 4,000 innocent persons lost their lives. The media reported these events with candor and care. But in some instances they did more, embellishing facts with strident alarmism. Passionate if not accurate web homepages and newspaper headlines warned of "America under attack!" Editorials, commentators, and talk show gossip magnified observable human tragedy into theoretical systemic breakdown. We heard that our fundamental securities and comforts were on the brink of collapse. The world had suddenly changed. Old rules no longer applied. Not just precious people and familiar places but our very way of life was under attack.

Here was perceived opportunity for a domestic assailant. If society was nearing chaos, if 19 fanatics could bring on such an apparent crisis, then what might anthrax laced letters precipitate? Certainly much more amid the rumored growing confusion and disorder.

Question: You write in your book about survivalism as a "well-wrought defense against the diminishments of rationality." Rationality seems to be on hiatus since September 11—so is it the case that there is something essentially right about the survivalist view of the world as dangerous and conspiratorial?

Answer: In the aftermath of September 11 public confidence and complacency, as well as buildings, were falling apart. There was truth in the media reports that people were experiencing insecurity, confusion, dislocation from everyday routines (though how much of this altered perception is attributable to the media alarmism itself we don't know). Something in the world was monstrously irrational, did not make sense. But the rationality of our nation's basic institutions was never even nominally at risk. The rational organization of government and business, especially the news media business, went on undisrupted. The skies over our nation were cleared and controlled by the military within hours. Thousands of professional rescue workers in well-coordinated efforts worked to assist and recover, television and radio broadcasters reported every nuance of unfolding drama in real time to audiences around the globe. Rationality never blinked.

Danger and conspiracy? Contemporary life is filled with hazards. International tensions pose perennial risk in the atomic age and a globalized economy is sensitive to fluctuations in distant lands. Airplanes and automobiles crash, diseases spread, politicians are corrupted, corporations seek unfair advantage, the environment deteriorates, bankers embezzle, and physicians make mistakes. Forests burn, rivers flood, ships sink, bridges collapse, and elevators get stuck between floors. Survivalists carefully select from these conditions, emphasizing some, ignoring others, building their scenarios on the delicate optimism of middle ground, between the extremes of disbelief and despair, where their preparations can be imagined at once as necessary and sufficient.

Sometimes survivalist alarms are widely out of sync with reality. Consider the threat of bioterrorism. Surplus dealers sell survivalists thousands of gas masks and biohazard suits, especially of late. But in the past decade and a half more North Americans and Japanese have been crushed to death by unstable soda pop machines (40) than have met their ends via terrorists' biological or chemical weapons attacks (25) in spite of the efforts of the America's anthrax assailant and the Tokyo subway gassing and nine other attacks of the Aum Shinrikyo.

Question: Along the same lines, do you feel that those in the survivalist movement are currently feeling vindicated or that their positions are now more comprehensible than they were prior to September?

Answer: A little, perhaps. But I think "vindication" is the wrong term. Survivalists don't want to be right— they want to be heard. The point of survivalism is not being technically correct but being interesting, thought-provoking, earning consideration and an attentive ear from audiences. The point of survivalism is not convincing others that one scenario is more valid than another. September 11 did not confirm a survivalist truth so much as sensitize listeners to survivalist tale-telling, create a more hospitable stage on which survivalists can have a say, put on a show, interpret, dramatize and recast the events of the day and the signs of the times.

Admittedly, survivalists took advantage of the September 11 tragedy to trot out one of their familiar tales. The old story goes like this. A crippling attack on an American cultural icon or crucial command center by entrenched subversives leads to economic destabilization, and the exodus of US troops to elsewhere. Then, when the unprotected homeland is helpless, invasion comes from without or uprising from within, martial law is declared, guns and personal supplies are confiscated, and dissidents rounded up and sent off to political prison camps never to return. Only survivalists remain independent and capable of effective resistance. I heard this story from a survivalist 17 years ago and on the streets of my hometown September 12, 2001. Other well-worn stories followed. Elsewhere there was vindication—for entrepreneurs trading in the survival business. At least short-term prosperity has come to surplus dealers and other equipment purveyors, how-to booksellers, and prediction pamphlet peddlers.

Question: What, if anything, significantly differentiates a Christian Identity group from an Islamic extremist group (other than the difference in religion)?

Answer: The differences are sociological, not religious. Religion has little to do with either of these groups. The extremist hijackers of September 11 were no more "Islamic" than are violent Identity racists and anti-Semites "Christian." These self-serving ideologues do disservice to two of the world's great systems of spiritual understanding and moral order. Identity is a historic fiction justifying entrenched power inequities between the developed and developing nations, and race-based stratification intranationally, but Identity has little influence. Modern Western society tolerates a high degree of diversity in personal belief and expression while providing technical means—public access television, a reliable public postal system, and the internet—to disseminate virtually any and all claims, constructs, or notions uncensored. In this busy marketplace of ideas Identity is uncompetitive, easily overcome by commercial entertainment and the better organized moral entrepreneuring of more sophisticated special interest groups from Mothers Against Drunk Driving to the National Rifle Association. In the United States, fostering this competition is intentional. Freedom of expression is guaranteed while church (and synagogue and temple and mosque) are separated from government by constitutional fiat. But imagine different conditions: economic flaccidity, the ravages and refugees of protracted military and civil conflicts, underdevelopment, tribal factions. Add a weak ineffectual central government bent on imposing a state religion by actively insulating its populous from alternative forms of sense-making, enforcing scriptural dress codes and ritual performances by law (even eliminating moral competition from sandstone Buddhas). In these repressive conditions, pseudo-Islamic extremists peddle a perverse hope—not for now but later—the notion of celestial afterlife for all who die as martyrs in defense of faith. When this message is ardently urged, when alternatives are unthinkable or unknown, when the warrior death is presented as a glorious achievement for the individual and community, a very, very few sink to the occasion and take bloody suicidal action. But most do not in spite of training, propagandizing, and passionate pleas. Fewer yet would in the absence of grinding poverty, uneven justice, and roadblocks to learning.

Question: What does survivalism teach us about our society?

Answer: Modern social life trades complexity and challenge for efficiency and abundance, and most are satisfied enough with the exchange. The store is open, the TV on, all welcome. The shelves and channels are full of options. Pick this, try that, something for every budget, every taste. Modernity gives us more: more things to own and consume, more facts to analyze, more ways to communicate. But it also leaves us less: aimless, rootless, formless, groundless, useless. We may own much but what we accomplish as individuals diminishes toward choice between meaningless alternatives. Survivalists resist this drift. Survivalists do not see themselves as disadvantaged or threatened. They don't want liberation from oppressive yokes or demystification of grand confusions. They want a place between a rock and a hard spot, a place of resistance, a firm, gritty antithesis against which to test their talents, measure their mettle, and gauge their gumption. Imagining a hands-on grapple with hypothetical troubles ahead gives them purpose. Perhaps they are not all wrong.

To endure, today's societies must offer more than security and comfort. Ways must be found for people of varied means and imagination to craft culture as well as consume it. Certainly, ways will be found, licit and welcome or otherwise. Some may be inconsequential and some a boon and some may bring genius and depravity together.


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Richard G. Mitchell, Jr.
Dancing at Armageddon: Survivalism and Chaos in Modern Times
©2002, 280 pages
Cloth $27.50 ISBN: 978-0-226-53244-8
Paper $19.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-53246-2

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Dancing at Armageddon.

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