Could survivalism really have played a role in Friday's massacre?
- By J.M. BergerJ.M. Berger is co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror and is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.
In the wake of a terrible tragedy like Friday’s elementary school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, most people immediately begin groping for answers.
On Sunday, a family member claimed that Nancy Lanza, mother of 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza, owned the guns used in the shooting because she was some manner of survivalist. The reasons Adam Lanza did what he did may well be complex. But if the report proves to be true — and many, many reports about the Lanzas have not — it may provide context for his actions.
Survivalism, sometimes referred to as "doomsday prepping" or simply "prepping," is a movement based on the fear that society is on the brink of imminent, or at least foreseeable, collapse and that it’s sensible to prepare for that possibility.
"Survivalist" is a very broad category, and it includes a strikingly diverse collection of people, many of whom, it should be emphasized, are perfectly nice and have fears that are simply amplified versions of those that keep mainstream Americans awake at night. There are at least tens of thousands of prepper families in the United States, covering a broad range of practices, most of which are not particularly unreasonable.
Someone who closely followed the preparedness guidelines issued by the Department of Homeland Security, the Centers for Disease Control, or FEMA might find themselves the butt of "survivalist" jokes from their friends and family. But those friends would have been grateful to have a prepper friend if they lived in certain parts of the East Coast when Hurricane Sandy struck.
Preppers go beyond the average household’s disaster preparedness regime of having a couple flashlights with batteries in them. Their precautions can include everything from keeping a supply of canned goods to stocking generators and building elaborate bunkers. Many preppers also keep guns and a supply of ammunition in anticipation of the breakdown of law and order, as well as for hunting after the local Whole Foods has been abandoned to looters.
Shortly after press reports about Nancy Lanza’s alleged survivalism appeared, the American Preppers Network issued a statement, which said: "Our members, and others around the globe who share our philosophy of being prepared in times of emergency, are sickened by this event. We too are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters and to associate APN or any legitimate organization that stresses preparing for emergencies with this barbaric act goes against everything we collectively stand for."
Despite this statement, which is generally correct, prepper subculture can go further than intensive or even excessive preparation. Most survivalism is based around fear of a sometimes ambiguous, sometimes specific disaster that is just around the corner, most commonly referred to by preppers as SHTF, short for "shit hits the fan." Because SHTF can be anything from the collapse of the dollar to an electromagnetic pulse detonation to a race war, survivalist tendencies are sometimes — but not always — paired with malignant forms of extremism, such as ideological racism, sovereign citizenship, apocalyptic religion, or anti-government beliefs on both the right and the left sides of the political spectrum. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, for instance, took part in survivalist subculture in addition to their anti-government ideology, and extensive sections of the white nationalist Web forum Stormfront are dedicated to discussions of SHTF. But survivalism tends to be an add-on to such ideologies, not a fundamental cause.
In addition to ideological entanglements that go beyond its inherent mandate, survivalism itself can lead to dangerous behavior. Most obviously, in the context of the Lanza family, someone who believes the government is on the verge of collapse might stockpile weapons and train his or her children how to use them effectively without taking a full inventory of that child’s mental fitness.
While there’s not much solid research to be had, anecdotal observations certainly give the impression that there’s a higher incidence of mental illness among hardcore preppers than in the general population, and the nature of their beliefs and social networks may create obstacles to diagnosis and treatment. There can be fine lines between reasonable fear, intense fear, and irrational fear, and some preppers subscribe to conspiracy theories that are completely nuts, focused on supposed threats from sinister "chemtrails" to the Illuminati (or both and then some).
For all these reasons, there have been a number of cases where survivalism and violent actions were fellow travelers, aside from the well-documented case of McVeigh. The 1995 Olympic Park bomber, Eric Rudolph, was a survivalist, in addition to being an anti-abortion extremist. In 2004, police broke up an illegal weapons ring centered around several militia and survival groups. And in April of this year, Washington state survivalist Peter Keller killed his wife and daughter and then locked himself into a fortified rural bunker, where he killed himself after a standoff with police.
But a video Keller recorded before his death suggested his actions were not connected with his survivalist beliefs so much as his inability to survive ordinary life. Although his preparations created obvious complications for police trying to apprehend him, his beliefs did not seem to play a role in his murderous acts.
Therein lies the rub. A search of news archives yields hundreds of cases over the last 20 years of less prominent murderers and felons who were said to be survivalists, but the term is often bandied about loosely by police and reporters groping for a simple explanation of inaccessible motives or the possession of sophisticated weaponry.
The extremity of Adam Lanza’s crime has created a desperate desire for explanations, and dismissing him as a crazy survivalist — or the son of a crazy survivalist — will likely prove irresistible for many people trying to make sense of a senseless act. But the ultimate truth of his motive is not likely to be so simplistic. Survivalism does not justify slaughtering children, although fear of an impending and unbearable apocalypse might move a twisted mind toward such an act.
Additional information will emerge over the coming days, but we may never really know why Lanza killed his mother and so many innocent teachers and children. Understanding the context of his actions may provide useful insights that could prevent future incidents, but gross oversimplifications will only stand in the way.