Foreign Policy: 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. [Continue reading…]
From the perspective of the preppers, they probably see their philosophy as an extension of the boy scouts’ motto: be prepared. And for the rest of us, survivalists may look like oddballs subject to irrational, paranoiac fears.
But whatever the particular flavor of Apocalyptic vision they favor, the survivalist outlook is fundamentally misanthropic. It doesn’t simply anticipate the world going to hell, but nurtures the hope that as society gets destroyed, for those who were already sufficiently prepared there is still hope of a decent life — even if that means having to live inside some kind of well-armed fortress.
From this perspective, the world is out there, set apart from the individual who guards his own interests. There are no collective interests. There is no commonwealth.