James Wickstom, Other Extremists Warn Against Y2K

Fear of computer bug fueling far right

"Prepare for war. It's coming!" With those words, hard-line racist preacher James Wickstrom warned an August gathering of extremists in Pennsylvania of the end-times battle he expects in the year 2000 — a battle he believes will be set off by the so-called "Y2K" computer bug.

Across the extreme-right spectrum, such fears of a societal breakdown sparked by computer date-change problems have set activists afire. While Wickstrom's prophecies may be the most explosive, similar millennial fears are dominating the headlines of the radical press. The airwaves are reverberating with warnings to head for the hills and hunker down for possible riots and race war. The Internet is replete with similarly dire scenarios.

When the crash comes, Wickstrom enjoined some 30 followers, "get out of the way for a while and then go hunting, O Israel!" Like the biblical figure of David, godly whites must "fill our shoes with the blood of our enemies and walk in them."

Wickstrom lives, he said, "for the day I can walk down the road and see heads on the fence posts."

If the race war scenario such men envision is a fantasy, the computer problem they believe will set it off is not. Authorities ranging from President Clinton to leaders of industry around the world believe that Y2K — which is short for "Year 2000" — could lead to major social and economic snarls, even a worldwide depression.

The problem originated with early computer programmers who abbreviated date references to two digits — as in "98" for 1998 — in order to save then-precious bytes of computer memory. At the turn of the century, experts say, many computers could crash or spew nonsensical data as they confuse "00" for 1900.

While predictions vary hugely, many officials and experts believe there could be serious problems in banking, food supplies, air traffic control, nuclear and electrical power, defense and any number of other sectors.

Many fear a recession. And there are those who forecast even worse.

'Something Will Happen'
Regardless of the actual result — and many experts see the headline-making Y2K story as a tempest in a teacup — there is no question that a large number of extremists have pegged the year 2000 as a critical date.

For many, it will be the time when Christian patriots, the "children of light," must do battle with the satanic "forces of darkness." Others believe "one-world" conspirators will attack American patriots on that date.

This has not been lost on those who battle right-wing terror. Early next year, the FBI will launch a nationwide assessment of the threat of domestic terrorism on and around Jan. 1, 2000. "I worry that every day something could happen somewhere," Robert Blitzer, head of the FBI's domestic terrorism unit, told the Los Angeles Times recently.

"The odds are that something will happen."

Hard-line revolutionaries like Wickstrom are not the only ones to tie apocalyptic visions to the Y2K problem. Pat Robertson's relatively mainstream Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), for instance, offers news stories describing the computer bug and its possible ramifications such as "The Year 2000: A Date With Disaster" and "Countdown to Chaos: Prophecy for 2000."

Robertson markets a CBN video, "Preparing for the Millennium: A CBN News Special Report," that includes a synopsis of "the Y2K computer crisis" with his futuristic novel, The End of an Age, which describes a "possible scenario of a future biblical Armageddon" triggered by a meteor's crash.

The audience for such ideas is not even limited to evangelical Christians. A large number of new religious books have crossed over strongly into the secular market.

Left Behind, a recent series of four apocalyptic novels co-authored by an evangelical Christian minister and a former journalist, has sold almost 3 million copies. The series made "publishing history in September when all four of the books ascended to the top four slots on Publishers Weekly magazine's lists of bestsellers," according to a report in The New York Times.

The book's authors say every major prophecy of the biblical Book of Revelations has been fulfilled, and they expect the Y2K bug could set off the crisis.