National Security

Newtown and the Doomsday Preppers

Could survivalism really have played a role in Friday's massacre?

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.



The Real Susan Rice

Setting the record straight on the U.N. ambassador and colleague we know.

On Thursday, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice asked the president to remove her name from consideration as a possible successor to Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.

We deeply regret this, not because she is the only person qualified to serve in that position, but because of the false picture that has been painted of her character and service. As rumors spread that President Obama was considering her for the job, Rice became a lightning rod for criticism from Republican politicians and a small herd of pundits and columnists. The caricature that emerged from those criticisms bears little resemblance to the truth. We write to set the record straight.

From 1993 until 2001, Rice served in the Bill Clinton administration, first on the staff of the National Security Council, and later as assistant secretary of state for African affairs. We worked closely with her throughout this period, during which her performance was marked by high intelligence, unwavering energy, unassailable integrity, and a deep commitment to the interests and ideals of our nation.

These were years of enormous turbulence in Africa. The end of the Cold War unleashed hopes that new democracies would thrive and prosperity would spread; such hopes were counter-balanced by the eruption of international and civil conflicts, leading in Rwanda to genocide and in half a dozen other countries to debilitating tragedy and strife.

As we know from experience, diplomats cannot transform war into peace by wishes alone. One has to convince the leaders of governments and militias to stop fighting. This often requires sitting down with unsavory people and earning their trust. At times, it involves endorsing a fragile ceasefire that seems a better bet to save lives than a continuation of war.

At the White House and as assistant secretary of state, Rice endeavored (at our instruction) to build peace on several fronts. In the Horn of Africa, she joined the Organization of African Unity in persuading Ethiopia and Eritrea to end their cross-border conflict. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she worked with regional leaders to broker an agreement that led to the withdrawal of all the foreign forces that had entered what was called Africa's first world war. In 1999 in Sierra Leone, the Economic Community of West African States forged a pact between the government and rebels that briefly halted a murderous civil war. Ultimately, a U.N. peacekeeping force heavily assisted by the British brought about a second ceasefire, paving the way to disarmament and relative peace. Meanwhile, the brutal civil war in Sudan resisted all diplomatic efforts.

More generally, Rice was a principal architect of programs to improve Africa's own peacekeeping capabilities, supported the growth of democratic institutions, and tied ambitious economic initiatives to domestic political reform. The landmark Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (which became law in May 2000) lowered U.S. trade barriers to sub-Saharan Africa, while our backing for large-scale debt relief was designed to free up funds for investment in education, health care and other social needs. At Rice's urging, we also marshaled international support for a ban on trade in so-called blood diamonds.

Not all of our objectives in Africa were achieved before we left office, but the principles and programs she espoused helped build the foundation for future progress. Rice deserves immense credit for the passion and creativity that she brought to the job. She was driven by an urgent desire to save lives and to help countries in conflict rebuild and go forward in peace.

Rice has continued to operate at a high level as our country's permanent representative to the United Nations. Since 2009, she has held the moral high ground for the United States in the most diverse and contentious diplomatic arena on the globe. Her efforts contributed mightily to tough economic sanctions that have weakened Syria's brutal regime and made life far more difficult for the leaders of Iran. She has steadfastly defended our ally Israel from unbalanced attacks, and argued effectively for a Security Council resolution that paved the way for the removal of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Much of the recent criticism of Rice focused on her televised statements in the aftermath of September's terrorist assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. But even a high-level official depends on officially cleared talking points when publicly discussing a situation about which he or she lacks first-hand knowledge. This is especially the case when the talking points reflect the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community. Given the serious nature of what happened in Benghazi, senators were surely justified in asking questions, but there simply is no basis to believe that Rice sought to mislead the American people.

President Obama deserves -- and our nation requires -- a first-rate public servant in the position of secretary of state. Susan Rice is not the only such person, but she was certainly one of them. She will continue to represent our country at the United Nations and as a member of the president's cabinet. In the future, let us all strive to create an environment in which our leaders are held accountable to the truth, but not made subject to innuendo and false accusations.

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images