Law Enforcement and the Millennialist Vision: A Behavioral Approach

By Carl J. Jensen III, M.A., and Yvonne Hsieh

Special Agent Jensen serves in the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy.

Ms. Hsieh served as an honors intern in the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy.

 Law enforcement professionals face more challenges today than ever before.  Not since the advent of modern policing have agencies sought so arduously to examine and refine their missions, goals, and strategies to deal with increasingly ill-defined purposes.  To make matters more difficult, this examination comes during a time of decreasing budgets, increasing legal and media scrutiny, and often-uncertain public relations.

The millennialist, apocalyptic view of the world, which many groups and individuals hold, likely will become an area of increasing concern to law enforcement, especially as the year 2000 approaches.  By examining the behavioral dynamics occurring in groups that adhere to millenialist philosophies, law enforcement agencies can identify potential dangers in order to appropriately respond to and interact with these groups.


 Generally, millennialism refers to any movement that anticipates the ìtotal transformation and purification of society.î  In Western society, the most well-known religious version of millennialism occurs in the biblical account of the apocalypse as recorded in the Book of Revelation, where John, who had been exiled to the island of Patmos, relates a vision in which the Messiah returns to engage in a battle with Satan.  While numerous interpretations of the events portrayed in the Book of Revelation exist, one of the most popular Christian interpretations maintains that following numerous tribulations and battles, God vanquishes Satan and the ìchosen peopleî come to dwell with the Messiah for 1,000 years of bliss (e.g., the millennium).  Millennialism, however, does not belong exclusively to Christianity.  Many other religions, secular groups, and societies have their own versions of apocalyptic battles in which the forces of good triumph over evil following a cataclysmic and often-supernatural period of battle.

While the Bible does not provide a date for the apocalypse, many groups and individuals have concluded that they are currently living in the ìend times.î  To some individuals, the year 2000, with its numerical symmetry and obvious millennial correlation, represents the date of the great battle between good and evil.  Many others do not adhere to a specific belief involving supernatural battles, but they fear that a general state of chaos may result.  These beliefs and perceptions may cause greater involvement between law enforcement agencies and those groups that adhere to a millennial or apocalyptic philosophy.  Due to the dynamics and beliefs of several groups, more episodes involving suicides may occur by those who believe they follow Godís will.  Perhaps on a more sinister note, police officers may find themselves the targets of apocalyptic groups that feel justified in violently resisting legitimate acts by law enforcement agencies.

Millennialism and Extremist Groups

 For law enforcement purposes, extremism relates to groups and individuals engaged in criminal activity for the purpose of advancing or attempting to advance a political, religious, or social agenda.  Unfortunately, many individuals unfamiliar with the distinction use the terms ìextremist groupî and ìmilitiaî interchangeably.  For example, in the wake of the Oklahoma City tragedy, some members of the media portrayed militia group members as wild-eyed, violent, and uneducated.  This caricature seriously misstates the reality that many militia group members represent intelligent, law-abiding citizens who care deeply about their country but may question political and constitutional issues.  Indeed, many militias condemned the Oklahoma City bombing.  However, some militia, paramilitary, and extremist groups, as well as unaffiliated individuals, will engage in criminal activity to support their religious, social, and political philosophies.

For many individuals and groups, apocalyptic themes play a central role in their belief systems.  According to some, the government has aligned itself with evil forces. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, then President George Bush began making statements in which he used the phrase ìNew World Order.î  For example, in a speech before the Council of Christian Broadcasters, he talked about ìa moral and just war to defeat the tyranny of Saddam?a madman who threatens the burgeoning New World Order...î  Most individuals who heard these words believed that President Bush was talking about an international community united by a sense of justice and the rule of law.  Others, however, have cited those statements as proof that the U.S. government is involved with international forces in a plot to replace democracy in America with a tyrannical, Communist-like dictatorship.  Others suggest that foreign troops have arrived clandestinely in the United States to await orders to round up any Americans who oppose this presumed New World Order.  Some individuals allege that gun control legislation represents a ploy to assemble lists of gun owners in order to arrest them and transport them to concentration camps, which are secretly under construction by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Still others have gone so far as to assert that the tragedies at Ruby Ridge and Waco served as dry runs for future government actions by New World Order storm troopers.


 Based either on a religious or secular model, apocalyptic belief systems contain certain universal characteristics.  At the core of each, a fundamental struggle exists between good and evil.  In Christianity, this struggle occurs between God and Satan.  For many extremists, the evil forces of the New World Order constantly struggle with those patriotic Americans who believe that the democratic principles of this country have almost disappeared.  This perspective contains little gray area: those defined as evil remain unremittingly sinister, while those defined as good stay unerringly righteous and pure.

 To this end, even those apocalyptic belief systems that are primarily secular often contain religious or supernatural rhetoric and ideas.  For example, many who deplore the New World Order make liberal use of religious imagery: those parts of the U.S. Constitution with which they agree are ìsacredî and ìholy,î while those that run counter to their beliefs (e.g., the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to former slaves) are cast in demonic terms.

 The battle between the forces of good and evil generally represents the final chapter in an ongoing struggle.  For example, the conflict between God and Satan began in the Book of Genesis, while many who believe in the New World Order trace the roots of this grand conspiracy to the Knights Templars and the Crusades.

 Another common apocalyptic theme concerns the grand and horrific nature of the final battle between good and evil. Some predict that many individuals will perish on both sides of the conflict.  In certain Christian denominations, the chosen ones will proceed to heaven and miss the battle, while those not chosen will suffer horrible plagues and consequences on earth.  Other religious and secular groups believe they will participate in the struggle and play a pivotal role in allowing good to triumph.  For example, these groups purport that loyal patriots who have managed to save their weapons from confiscation will defeat the forces of the New World Order.

 The final component of the apocalyptic vision includes the contention that in the end, good triumphs over evil.  In addition, those who have persevered in the fight against evil will be rewarded with either everlasting life in heaven or the defeat of tyranny and the fulfillment of heaven on earth.

The Apocalyptic Timetable

 In addition to articulating the alleged plan for the takeover of America, religious and secular spokespersons routinely provide timetables for its implementation.  In many cases, the year 2000 represents the date when the apocalypse purportedly will begin.  This date has significance for a variety of individuals.  Those who follow the New World Order theory believe that 2000 represents the year for the takeover of America.  For others, the year 2000 has great religious significance, and those with no particular political or religious agenda believe that the turn of the century will usher in a period of unprecedented floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters.

 Certain existing conditions may appear to validate these beliefs.  For example, government and private sector computer experts have acknowledged that in the year 2000, many computers will be unable to distinguish the year 2000 from the year 1900.  Dubbed the Y2K Problem, it may cause widespread computer software failures.  To some individuals, this problem signals impending societal discord and chaos and appears to complement and reinforce the predicted apocalyptic nightmare scenario.


 For some extremists, political and religious symbolism often meld together to create a dictatorial, anti-Christian future vision of America.  To those who fear such a future, the solution appears obviousórighteous, courageous Americans who believe in a free America must obtain  arms for its immediate defense.  Subsequently, such individuals must consider against whom  they must defend the country.  They consider federal law enforcement officers, especially those who have primary jurisdiction over firearm and terrorism matters (e.g., the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI), the enemies.  Increasingly, however, state and local officers who contact citizens on a more routine basis have become victims of violent acts.  In a recent, well-publicized example, an individual with alleged links to a white supremacist organization fired upon Ohio officers during a traffic stop.  A review of the incident indicated that the individual who fired the shots possibly prepared himself for the confrontation by donning body armor and assembling available weapons while troopers questioned his brother.

Psychological Issues

 The examination of domestic extremist groups reveals three social-psychological components that appear to interact to produce an effect known as the Lethal Triad.  In particular, extremist groups physically and psychologically isolate their members from mainstream society.  This isolation causes a reduction of critical thinking on the part of group members, who become more entrenched in the belief proposed by the group leadership.  As a result, group members relinquish all responsibility for group decision making to their leader and blame the cause of all group grievances on some outside entity or force, a process known as projection.  Finally, isolation and projection combine to produce pathological anger, the final component of the triad.

 Millennialism intersects with each component in different ways.  In terms of isolation, some groups continually send apocalyptic images and messages to group members, who internalize their content and compare the messages to known reality or past learning.  For many schooled in Christian thought, the apocalypse is not new.  When a message of government malfeasance combines with a familiar belief, such as that of the apocalypse, the entire message may gain credibility.  For example, accepting the notion of foreign troops on American soil might prove difficult, but if explained in the context of a belief that already has gained credibility (e.g., the coming apocalypse with its authoritative, biblical precedent), the entire concept may become plausible.  Additionally, scenarios such as the Y2K glitch serve to enhance the believability of an apocalyptic scenario in the minds of those already predisposed to this belief.

 Group membersí anger grows as they project blame onto outside sources.  As a perceived threat becomes imminent, anger will grow accordingly.  As the year 2000 approaches, the threat of the New World Order becomes more real and imminent to those who believe in its existence.  According to the third component of the Lethal Triad, anger will grow, as will the potential for future violent acts.  Many law enforcement professionals have reported a general increase in extremist group activities within their jurisdictions in the past few years.  The question remains, however, whether this purported increase in criminality will achieve statistical significance and continue to increase as the year 2000 approaches.

 Perhaps of equal importance to law enforcement, many potentially dangerous groups have indicated that they will not take offensive action against the government but will act only in a ìdefensive posture.î  Unfortunately, the activities that will justify this defensive, or more properly, reactive posture remain unclear.  While major actions involving groups (e.g., mass arrests) may provoke a response, no one knows what may happen in other activities.  Even the extremist groups do not appear sure of their responses.  In light of the lethal triad methodology, the threshold for invoking a reactive posture may decrease as the year 2000 approaches.  That is, extremist group members may view standard police activity, such as stopping motorists for minor traffic infractions or serving misdemeanor warrants, as offensive measures and may respond with increasing violence.  While definitive statistics do not exist to confirm or disprove this prediction, the Ohio traffic stop incident should serve as a warningówell-rehearsed and well-prepared adversaries may appear with greater frequency as the year 2000 approaches.


 Some individuals in the militia movement view law enforcement as the enemy.  Perhaps the worst course of action for law enforcement to take when dealing with these individuals is to engage in activity which validates their apocalyptic fears.  Many critics have noted, for example, that the federal actions at both Waco and Ruby Ridge reinforced the belief of many individuals that their views concerning an impending tyrannical New World Order were correct.  Subsequent to these incidents, the FBI developed and employed new techniques that included low-key negotiations coupled with a reduction in visible signs of a paramilitary and Special Weapons and Tactics team presence.  These techniques showed great success during the Freemen standoff in Montana in 1996.  In addition, the peaceful resolution of this standoff likely had great symbolic significance to those who view the government as the enemyóin contrast to their presumption that the federal government would use a heavy-handed approach to resolve the situation, the low-key, patient strategy employed deflated this perception.  Indeed, many militia leaders praised the actions of the federal government in the Freemen affair.

 Accordingly, state and local law enforcement should take steps to reduce the level of fear and distrust that may exist between their organizations and extremist groups operating in their jurisdictions.  For example, after determining safety issues, police and sheriffsí department officials should consider contacting known militia group members in their areas.  Such contacts should remain friendly and low-key in order to diffuse tensions and reduce misunderstandings between the police and group members.  These contacts have proven very effective.  In some cases, members of militia groups have assisted law enforcement agencies in preventing violent acts.  Prior law enforcement familiarity with some extremist groups has allowed for the peaceful resolution of potentially volatile arrest situations.  At the same time, agencies should not attempt to gain or confirm intelligence information through these contacts or volunteer sensitive information to militia representatives.

 Law enforcement agencies should remain aware of any potential threats to their personnel and stay abreast of any trends involving extremist group activities.  For example, individuals driving in vehicles without license plates or with plates not issued by a legitimate licensing authority may be members of an organization that does not recognize the authority of a state or local policing agency.  Lack of a valid vehicle registration or driverís license may offer further confirmation that the individual belongs to such a group.

 In addition to federal, state, and local law enforcement sources, many civilian and academic organizations track trends of extremist groups.  These sources of information may prove extremely valuable to law enforcement officials, and using them on a regular basis as permitted under the law may, in fact, lead to better communication with extremist group members, ultimately aiding in avoiding deadly confrontations.
 Finally, departments should continue to emphasize basic officer and street survival techniques on a regular basis.  By combining threat analysis with specific methods of dealing with potentially lethal situations, law enforcement managers can help their officers reduce complacency and carelessness in performing everyday, repetitive tasks.


 As the year 2000 approaches, law enforcement agencies may face additional challenges from individuals and groups for whom the millennium holds great spiritual and symbolic significance.  The Lethal Triad concept offers a concise explanatory model to understand the behavioral dynamics that underlie a belief involving millennial and apocalyptic themes.  This approach can help explain how and why apocalyptic groups pose a challenge to law enforcement personnel.

 As with most challenges facing police officers, knowledge of potential threats, good relationships with all members of the community, and an emphasis on basic street survival and officer safety hold the greatest potential for averting tragedy while providing the highest level of citizen protection and police services. While no one can predict the future, with forethought and planning, law enforcement can fulfill its mission no matter what the millennium holds.

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