Apocalyptic Nihilism

By Chip Berlet

Young men making the passage into adulthood in our society sometimes act out their anxieties in destructive ways. This is nothing new. Young men are disproportionately responsible for some categories of aggressive and violent crimes, including certain types of hate crime.

The murderous shooting spree at a Colorado high school is a tragic example of this tendency. The horrific level of violence in this and similar incidents, however, suggests that as we approach the millennial year 2000, acts of apocalyptic violence may be increasing.

Apocalyptic beliefs, some specifically linked to millennial expectation, have been involved in several deadly violent confrontations such as the shootout between federal marshals and the Weaver family in Idaho, and the conflagration at the Branch Davidian compound in Texas. This is also the worldview behind some of the most violent anti-abortion shootings and bombings. The Order of the Solar Temple imploded with group suicides in Canada, France and Switzerland. Sometimes groups turn outward, such as the Aum Shinrikyo sect which exploded with a gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

In its more common and generic usage, the word apocalypse has come to mean the belief in an approaching confrontation, cataclysmic event, or transformation of epochal proportion, about which a select few have forewarning so they can make appropriate preparations.

Apocalyptic themes are certainly evident in popular culture where films such as, Armageddon and, Apocalypse Now and the TV series, Millennium name the tradition while mainstreaming the ideas. Films including, Rambo, Mad Max, Red Dawn, Die Hard, Terminator and their sequels reinterpret apocalyptic visions while obscuring their origins.  The X-Files film and its related TV series are quintessential apocalyptic narratives.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer stomps incarnate evil in a weekly TV series. Some violent role-playing video games put the player, usually a young man, in the center of an apocalyptic kill-or-be-killed universe.

A particular demonizing interpretation of Biblical prophecy about a final battle in the End Times provides the historic narrative for these sensational scripts. What is entertainment for some, however, is spiritual and political reality for others. Those who believe in a coming apocalypse might be optimistic about the outcome of the apocalyptic moment, anticipating a chance for positive transformational change; or they might be pessimistic, anticipating a doomsday; or they might anticipate a period of violence or chaos with an uncertain outcome.

People who expect a showdown between Us and Them, and think that time is running out, can decide they might as well take preventive action or seek revenge before it is too late. This type of apocalyptic thinking has given our society the Salem witch hunts, anti-Catholic and anti-Masonic hysterias, the Red Scare, and the current fixation by self-styled patriots and armed militias over a vast New World Order conspiracy. Christian Identity, the hate-filled religious philosophy of choice on the far right, is a form of apocalyptic millennialism that scapegoats Jews, Blacks, and other people of color--just as the original Nazi movement which celebrated violent confrontation and saw a thousand year Reich.

Visit a large bookstore and scan the titles in the religion, prophecy,  new age, and occult sections and you will see a cornucopia of books anticipating the year 2000. Surfing the Web reveals a pulsating multimedia cacophony of millennial expectation. The topics range from secular to spiritual and from cataclysmic doom to transcendent rapture in what academic Michael Barkun has called an improvisational style of millennialism and apocalypticism.

For instance, the Heaven's Gate mass suicide in 1997 merged millennial prophetic visions from the Bible, the prophecies of Nostradamus, and the literary genre of science fiction. Conspiracist William Cooper weaves an apocalyptic vision out of historic anti-Semitism and modern UFO lore.  Art BellĒs late-night radio talk show, like many other similar radio programs, is awash with mutating apocalyptic fears and conspiratorial rumors, yet some bookstore chains shelved his recent book in the social science section.

The Trenchcoat Mafia in Colorado seem to have cobbled together an eclectic worldview that combined  bits and pieces from multiple apocalyptic genre: youth culture gothic rituals and symbols, violent computer games, neonazi lore, anarchist musical genre. The result was a type of apocalyptic nihilism. They acted out their beliefs.

Academic Lee Quinby argues that Apocalypticism in each of its modes fuels discord, breeds anxiety or apathy, and sometimes causes panic, and that it can occur at the individual, community, national, or international level. She says that in apocalyptic thinking it is the will to absolute power and knowledge that produces its compulsions of  violence, hatred, and oppression.

Add apocalyptic thinking to the nihilism woven through certain musical styles popular among some youth; and the dysfunctional idea common in gangs that to be a man one must engage in some type of ritual violence, and you have the recipe for the Colorado shootings.

We need to understand and confront apocalyptic visions that demonize and scapegoat others for our own and our society's failures. This is especially true as we approach the millennium.


Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates in Somerville, MA, is co-writing a book on scapegoating. He also works with the Center for Millennial Studies.

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Copyright ©1999 by Chip Berlet and The Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED