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Waiting for the End to Come: A Review of Dancing at Armageddon


By Elaine Cassel

How do you explain people who predict and plan for doomsday scenarios like Y2K disasters, interracial war, economic collapse, and U.S. government plots against private citizens? Dancing At Armageddon: Survivalism and Chaos in Modern Times (University of Chicago Press, 2002) offers a theory to help explain survivalism.

Author Richard G. Mitchell, Jr., a University of Oregon sociology professor, defines survivalists as people preparing for a myriad of anticipated disasters. The typical survivalist is a white male in his late 30s with two years of college and two children. Survivalists form groups devoted to planning and preparing for trouble to come; some live together in compounds or build homes on lots owned by group leaders. They put together conferences and retreats in which they share their ideas and sell their goods and services to each other.

Survivalists are made up of groups as diverse as citizens’ militias, white supremacists and other racial separatists, and extreme religionists of various faiths. Others predict eminent nuclear war or invasion by aliens. Rejecting the norms of mainstream culture, survivalists become marginalized members of society. Social psychologists would explain survivalism as a product of deindividuation and group influence.

When people experience deindividuation, they undergo heightened emotional arousal and an intense feeling of cohesiveness that shifts their focus away from their internal thoughts and standards to those of the group members. When people start to live with, act like, and talk like members of the group, they have the potential for engaging in antisocial behavior. For instance, the Aryan Nation engages in hate crimes against non-white citizens; some religious extremists promote killing of abortion doctors; and Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, convicted in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, were members of a citizens’ militia.

Though a sociologist who studies groups of people, Mitchell’s thesis about the origins of survivalist behavior is similar to the humanist and existential psychological perspectives. He believes that survivalists are victims of modernity and rationality; life is so predictable, so boring that they create apocalyptic scenarios to plan for in order to give meaning to their lives. They see nothing harmful in their beliefs or behaviors. They are striving for self-actualization.

Mitchell does not address the fact that the scenarios that survivalists create are, for the most part, delusional. They are not based in fact or reason; indeed they, as Mitchell describes it, "deconstruct," "reinvent," and "transform" accepted bodies of knowledge like science, economics, and history to fit their bizarre schemas of the future. He explains the violence and horrific crimes of some survivalists like McVeigh and Nichols as the acts of people who got tired of planning and hoping for the apocalypse and created their own disaster.

Psychologists would add that this behavior also stems from deindividuation—people may engage in violence as members of a group that they would not perform as individuals. Some doomsayers might be diagnosable with a delusional disorder; others may be said to be suffering from folie à deux, a shared delusional disorder. Survivalist behavior can harm people within and outside of their ranks. Fearful predictions and prophecies can cause grave economic harm (for example, think of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on Y2K scenarios that never came to pass) and psychological harm to the society from which survivalists isolate themselves.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, some Americans may adopt a survivalist stance as they face the prospect of random acts of terrorism. Dancing At Armageddon provides an interesting theory for a phenomenon that deserves further psychological study.

Elaine Cassel, Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College


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