James Wickstrom warned a 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.
"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.
Y2K and the Antichrist
"It could very well trigger a financial meltdown," co-author Tim LaHaye writes on his publisher's Web site, which attracts 80,000 electronic visits a day, "leading to an international depression, which would make it possible for the antichrist or his emissaries to establish a one-world currency or a one-world economic system, which will dominate the world commercially until it is destroyed."
The series has spun off a companion children's book series, a music CD, T-shirts and caps. More books and a movie also are in the works, the Times reported. And now, Tennessee trade magazine publisher Tim Wilson has launched a new periodical, Y2K News Magazine, that includes tips on defending property from would-be attackers.
Reaction to the Y2K problem on the extreme fringes of the right has varied widely, usually depending on the religious or ideological bent of each group. Probably the most consistent theme has been a survivalist one, with ideologues warning that people must prepare for the worst.
And entrepreneurs around the country have leaped to take advantage of these fears, offering for sale everything from dried foods to underground bunkers.
At the Preparedness Expo '98 held in Atlanta last June, for instance, at least a dozen speakers offered bleak assessments of the coming crisis. For those who took the bait, there was a plethora of products available: water purifiers, hundreds of types of storable foods from "enzyme-rich vegetable juice extracts" to "gourmet" dehydrated fruits, seeds, herbal medicines, "Cozy Cruiser" trailers and all manner of books on survival skills.
Such merchants aren't the only ones pandering to millennial fear.
Land, Gold and Medical School
In Idaho, so-called "Patriot" James "Bo" Gritz hawks remote lots of land that he describes as "an ark in the time of Noah," along with a huge range of survivalist products and training (see Bucket of Bubbles). In Montana, Militia of Montana leader John Trochmann has a catalog of holocaust-survival items.
In states around the country, far-right "investment counselors" sell strategies to protect one's money as civilization collapses.
And on the Internet, two self-described "Christian Patriots" signing themselves Michael Johnson and Paul Byus offer "foolproof" gold certificates to a mining claim in Oregon.
"We [also] have set up schools to cover kindergarten, 1st thru 12th grades, adult school, community college, 4 yr college, university, and even the medical school I told you about 6 months ago," one of the Internet salesmen claims. "Bring your kids and entire family to participate in our secure decentralized Patriot community... ."
Other reactions on the extreme right run the gamut, from seeing the crisis as an opportunity for global conspirators to seize dictatorial powers, to viewing it as an opening for revolution or a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Recent examples:
· The New American, an organ of the ultraconservative John Birch Society, speculates that the Y2K bug could be America's Reichstag fire, a reference to the 1933 arson attack on Germany's Parliament building that was used by Hitler as an excuse to enact police state laws.
"[C]ould the Millennium Bug provide an ambitious President with an opportunity to seize dictatorial powers?" the magazine asks. "Such a notion seems plausible... ."
· Norm Olson, a Michigan militia leader, is busy doing "wolfpack" training for the apocalypse, reports Media Bypass, a magazine popular among Patriots. "Survival is the key. As with most other people, we will rely on our self-supporting 'covenant community,'" said Olson, who believes constitutional rights probably will be suspended before the real crisis hits.
"It will be the worst time for humanity since the Noahic flood."
· In his AntiShyster magazine, Patriot editor Alfred Adask speaks of entire cities running out of food and of the possibility of "millions of American fatalities." "If the Y2K information I've seen is accurate, we are facing a problem of Biblical proportions," he says.
"Potentially, Y2K ... [is] a dagger pointed at the heart of Western Civilization."
· Bo Gritz's Center for Action newsletter, describing Y2K as "a pandemic electronic virus more deadly than AIDS," predicts "worldwide chaos" and then goes on to offer lots for sale at Gritz's "Almost Heaven" community.
"If Y-2-K has the predicted effect ... we can expect to see, out of the ashes of decimated fiat systems and economic chaos, the rise of a 'MONEY MESSIAH,' who will offer a miraculous fix to a bleeding, begging world," Gritz adds. He also predicts imposition of a worldwide "electronic currency."
· Writing in The Jubilee, the leading periodical of the racist and anti-Semitic Christian Identity religion, correspondent Chris Temple says that "the net result of the Year 2000 problem as I have described it will be POSITIVE! Internationalism and capitalism will be dealt severe blows; efforts to recapture local control ... will spread."
· In his Patriot Report, Identity proselytizer George Eaton concludes: "We need to act as if our lives depend upon our decisions, because they do. What can we do? Continue to work and save up money for survival items. ... A person can never be over-prepared."
· In a July Internet posting on a Klan news page, a contributor described as a computer programmer demands that the federal government "surrender" in return for programmers' assistance in fixing the Y2K bug. The posting speaks of "the thousands (probably millions) joining us in our rural retreats. We've got the bibles, the beans, the bandages, the bullets — and the brains. ...
"You will reap what you have sewn [sic]. ... Some cities will indeed end in flames — flames that will light a path to our posterity's freedom."
From Fallout Shelters to Y2K
Interestingly, one of the most salient commentators on the Y2K problem — a man often quoted in the mainstream press — has been Gary North.
North is a hard-line opponent of abortion and a theocratic thinker who advocates imposing biblical law on the United States. In his books, he has written of the possibility of a "political and military" confrontation "in the philosophical war against political pluralism."
Although he is widely described as a Y2K "expert," he is also something of a professional doomsayer.
In 1986, long before the Y2K problem came to public attention, North co-authored a book on how to survive nuclear Armageddon. Called Fighting Chance: Ten Feet to Survival, it features a shovel — for digging fallout shelters — on its cover.
North's huge Y2K Web site has made him into a guru to many extremists. The neo-Nazi Aryan Nations is one of many groups that link their Web sites to that of North.
"These are people who are super-sensitive to anything that suggests the collapse of social institutions," Michael Barkun, a Syracuse University expert on millennialism, said of Y2K fearmongers. "Since nuclear war really is no longer out there as a terribly likely way for civilization to end, they've got to find something else. Y2K is convenient."
Many experts, including Barkun and the FBI's Blitzer, agree that extremists' fears and hopes surrounding Y2K have increased the danger of domestic terrorism. "It adds to apocalyptic fears," says Chip Berlet, who studies the far right for Cambridge-based Political Research Associates. "Therefore, it adds to the potential for violence."
James Wickstrom may best illustrate that potential.
At the meeting he co-hosted with Identity leader August Kreis in Ulysses, Pa., he warned his audience — several clad in Aryan Nations uniforms — that authorities would use the crisis to confiscate weapons, conduct forced marches of Americans into concentration camps and eliminate private medical facilities.
Already, he warned, national food reserves have been deliberately reduced from 230 million to 2 million tons. Two-thirds of godly white racists, he predicted, will die in the war that comes in 2000.
The enemy, said Wickstrom, must be "exterminated." He must be "shot." He must be "hanged."
"The battle is upon us," Wickstrom bellowed. "Battle!"