CORVALLIS, Ore. - The heightened awareness of terrorism in the aftermath of Sept. 11 has made the issue of security a top national concern and understandably so.
But Americans' desire to once again feel safe may have unintended consequences, according to an Oregon State University sociologist who has spent 18 years mingling with survivalists and has written a new book on his experiences called "Dancing at Armageddon."
Richard Mitchell, an OSU professor of sociology, wrote the book after meeting with a variety of self-described survivalists at clandestine training camps, conferences, gun shows and the residences of home-based groups. He says that there are bands of self-styled survivalists prepared to arm themselves for action to protect America against domestic threats --- real and imagined.
"Beware of what you wish for," said Richard Mitchell, a professor at OSU and author of a new book on survivalism. "There are plenty of fringe groups ready to provide their own versions of 'Homeland Security,' but we may not feel safer with them on the loose because we don't have any idea of what they may do, or to whom they may address their intentions.
"These survivalists have been active for decades," he added, "but the events of Sept. 11 have given them visibility and even some degree of credibility."
Mitchell has spent much of his recent career meeting with survivalists, searching for common denominators and trying to learn what makes them tick. The people, places and stories that Mitchell experienced during his research are the basis of "Dancing at Armageddon," just published by the University of Chicago Press.
Subtitled "Survivalism and Chaos in Modern Times," the book is a non-fictional narrative, filled with stories of real people trying to carve their own niche into modern-day society.
Mitchell's view of survivalists evolved over the years. He says he realized his initial focus on survivalism was colored by the extreme examples portrayed in the media, from spree killer James Oliver Huberty, who gunned down 21 people in a California McDonald's in 1984, to the public outrage over Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. Most survivalists don't resemble these media-created caricatures, he learned.
"We want to believe that survivalists are easy to see and obviously different than we are: gun-toting, camouflaged thugs, uneducated, Rambo-wannabe losers," Mitchell pointed out.
Some survivalists fit that mold, Mitchell affirms, and they tend to surface to the public's attention during times of national crisis. But many more survivalists go unrecognized, living middle-class lives and harboring grandiose plans of which few outsiders are aware.
Mitchell fills his book with fascinating characters of all sorts. Dentists, millionaire business leaders and other professionals, mix with gun enthusiasts, blue-collar tradesmen, and hard luck characters trying to scratch out a living. Some are sympathetic; others are frightening.
"One retired military officer preaches killing all Jews and overthrowing the government, while a computer engineer buries 42 school buses in his back yard to shelter 500 of his neighbors in time of war," Mitchell said. "And then there's the unemployed construction worker who sells his expensive guns to care for the family's ailing dog."
These are real people, Mitchell says, and they all head survivalist groups. Yet you likely wouldn't know they were survivalists if you ran into them on the street.
Defining what makes a survivalist isn't as simple as it sounds, Mitchell said, but in general survivalists are looking for trouble. "But for them," he added, "trouble also has possibilities."
When things go wrong, when the economy falters or the bombs fall or the enemy invades, there is work to be done to protect, and things to fix and repair. Those who are ready, who have a plan and tools and supplies, suddenly can make a difference. They can do something consequential.
"Survivalism helps ordinary people imagine themselves as extraordinarily useful," Mitchell said.
"Are they always realistic about what they do? No. They buy gas masks, build fallout shelters and hoard food supplies when they know the real problems are with big business, foreign policy and changing morals.
"The point of survivalism is not practical security but risky adventure, of exploring the unknown, testing the limits," Mitchell said. "Survivalists want to create the culture they live in, not just consume it. They are constantly reading, studying, writing to each other, looking for 'hidden' secrets of science or changes in the economy or new threats from subversives or aliens."
Mitchell says being a survivalist allows you to tell your own story, become your own CNN or your own research and development department instead of blindly accepting culture offered by television, big business or the government. "The stories in 'Dancing at Armageddon' are as much a critique of modern western life as they are tales of survivalism," he added.
Sometimes the media completely overlook actual survivalism, Mitchell said, in their focus on appearances like camouflage gear or semiautomatic weapons. And, he added, the media often mistake survivalist play-acting for real.
"I remember attending a gun show and watching as a TV crew went up and down the aisles until they found a grizzled old guy I was talking to who fit the image they were looking for," Mitchell said.
"He got up and did his thing, ranting about militias and preparing for Armageddon and the TV crew ate it up. As soon as they left, he turned to me and winked, then said, 'That was a hoot! I really had 'em going!'
"See, to him, dealing with the media was a game," Mitchell said. "He didn't really believe that simplistic stuff he spouted but he knew it was what the reporters wanted to hear, it entertained the crowd, and it gave him five minutes of fame."
In reality, Mitchell said, the guy had plenty to tell. But his long, complicated "plot" was constantly changing as he incorporated new "facts" into his various scenarios. That, Mitchell adds, is the point of survivalism - making hunches that fit public news, private guesses, and personal preparation together.
"Most of the time survivalists just talk and plan," Mitchell said. "Troubles don't justify action - yet. But when America is attacked, when authorities warn there are terrorists among us and the nation is gripped with fear, survivalists go on the alert. Hunches begin to look real. It is nearly time to put plans in motion."
Mitchell hopes his book, "Dancing at Armageddon," tells what might happen then.
"Some survivalism won't matter much," Mitchell said, "and some may actually help. But there is a dark side too, as the anthrax assaults of last October made clear. For survivalism can also bring genius and depravity together."
Click photos to see a full-size version. Right click and save image to download.
Richard Mitchell, 541-737-5377; 752-0755