Fear Pressure: Is Paranoia Destroying Us?
April 26, 2000
"Separate thyself from thine enemies, and take heed of thy friends." -- Apocrypha. Ecclesia sticus 6:13True story: By day, mild-mannered Scott Futterman mans a help line for computer products. In the evenings and on weekends, he sports camouflage fatigues and is the commanding officer of the 77th Regiment in Pinellas County. No, it's not the National Guard, the Army Reserve or the Boy Scouts. It's the Florida militia, a collection of apocalypse aficionados, conspiracy theorists and survivalist gun-worshippers.What are Futterman and his 50 or so troops up to? It sounds mundane when he answers: "Training for emergency evacuation, first aid." He then steps up to the brink: "We study local gangs so we'll know what to do if they get out of hand during riots."Then, without missing a beat, he plunges over the edge, saying, "And the onslaught. If we're invaded by Cubans, what will they be looking for? We have to be ready...for a Cuban invasion."True story: A lawyer was involved in a lawsuit against a local government agency. Very bitter lawsuit. Lots of nasty charges and counter-charges, not only about the accusations in the lawsuit, but about the lawyers on each side."Their (the government agency's) method was to intimidate the hell out of us," says the lawyer.One day, outside the lawyer's house and down the street a little, a green, late-model Ford was parked with a man inside, apparently watching -- something or someone. The lawyer was puzzled. A few days later, same green Ford, same guy, same spot on the lawyer's street.Lawyer gets tag number, runs a computer check. Bingo! It's a cop who operates a private security agency on the side. The lawyer's immediate conclusion: spying by the government."This is terrible what they're doing," the lawyer says.The lawyer tells a reporter and the reporter calls the cop. Oops. Indeed, the cop was parked on the lawyer's street. He was out in front of his in-laws' house, waiting for his wife.True story: At Shooting Sports Inc., a popular gun store, a 30ish man -- it turns out he's a physician -- is buying a handgun. It's for his girlfriend. The doctor explains the purchase, reciting a litany of recent mayhem -- a couple gunned down at a distribution center, another couple sliced and diced at their hideaway home. "I work odd hours," he says. "She (the girlfriend) needs security, protection. We live in [a gated, guarded community], but is it enough?"And what about the statistics that show it's more likely one half of the couple will turn the gun on the other, rather than on a bad guy? " Worries me. Worries me a lot," the doctor says. "I know it happens. I see it every day. But, frankly, I'm a lot more scared of ... of ...them than her.""Them." It's always "them."For Futterman, "them" is the government and what he sees as murderous federal agents, the international conspiracy, the street gangs, the Communists, the New World Order, the Trilateral Commission, the United Nations guys in the black helicopters.For the lawyer, "them" is also the government, but not so much armed with guns as with black bags of dirty tricks.For the young doctor, "them" are the dregs of a society fraying at the fringes, its increasing lawlessness threatening.Let's call it social paranoia, a heady concoction of fear of crime, fear of other races, fear of the economy, fear of the government, fear of aliens (both varieties: those from this world trying to get into the United States, and those from other worlds abducting people, killing cattle, scorching fields, etc.), fear of the unknown, fear of the known.It's no longer an aberration and the obsession of a delusional few. It's the hallmark of the final days of the 20th century (or, for the truly religious or truly paranoid, the final days of the world as we know it)."We're all on the deck of the Titanic," says Tony Redding, a psychiatrist at the University of South Florida. "Maybe it's just the time we're in. At the turn of the last century, things became a bit unglued, too."Ken McCreedy, a professor of criminal justice at Ferrum College in North Carolina, says: "People are saying, 'The system can't work any longer. It isn't working.' They're panicked. They feel they have to do something."THE CONSPIRACY BRIGADEYou find the evidence of the most virulent strains of social paranoia peeking out from dark corners more and more often.For a start, look for fearful faces, eyes a little wild. You might find people such as Tricia -- she won't give her real last name, but she has had a number of very creepy novels published under the pen name Linda Crockett Gray. The novels range from girls being stalked to one based on serial killer Ted Bundy."Our government is too big," says Tricia, who is on the edge of the militia movement. "It has too much power. We've given it over to them. It's time to start taking it back."Is Tricia a little off balance? "People can think what they want," she says. "But I knew Desert Storm was going to happen five years before it did. I knew it. How did I know it? It's all in Ezekiel."On the surface, much of the message sounds, well, downright patriotic. Futterman talks of building "national serenity," and says: "We defend the public against tyranny. Look at any country. Where the government isn't afraid of the people, the people are afraid of the government."But the militia's "serenity" is an anti-immigrant variation on xenophobia. And, for a few, making the government afraid of the people translates to bombing federal buildings.The way-out-in-the-ozone paranoids have always been here. Thirty years ago, the John Birch Society started making headlines, warning of the "conspiracy." The group's more militant cousin, the Minutemen, was stockpiling weapons, including, according to old newspaper clippings, ground-to-air missiles. Now the grand old men of paranoia are back with billboards repeating their favorite refrain: Get out of the United Nations.The difference now is that quite a few of the fringe-of-the-fringe want to do more than just talk paranoia. "People find plausible explanations for things they concoct in their minds," says psychiatrist Redding. "People project fears onto black helicopters." Which, according to militia lore, are carrying foreign troops onto U.S. turf in preparation for the U.N. takeover of this nation. "Some people feel they must act. "The 1993 federal siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, the federal storming of separatist Randy Weaver's Idaho cabin a year earlier, gun control laws -- all contributed to fueling the paranoid fears of the fringe groups.Stir into the mix a heavy dose of fundamentalist religion. Psychology Today, noting in its August issue that most militia members believe Christ will return only after a violent apocalypse, suggested that "they want to be there during tribulation. They want to be there when the rivers run red. They want to take their Uzis and fight it out with the Beast. God needs their help."Art Teitelbaum is the head of the Anti-Defamation League in Miami, and is one of the nation's most-quoted sources on racists and swastika-scribblers. He isn't concerned with the beliefs or neuroses of the individuals. He merely abhors them. "There's a spectrum of these individuals," he says. "It ranges from simple talkers to sociopaths willing to commit acts of violence, who have no will or ability to distinguish between reality from paranoid fantasies."Estimates during the hysteria that followed the April 19 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City put the number of militia members in Florida, for example at 5,000 to 10,000. It's probably less. Futterman claims his group has 50 members. Extrapolated statewide, that makes the count maybe 700, maybe 1,000, maybe 2,000 at the outside. But it's enough. The 15 or so militias around Florida claim to be able to defend themselves against chemical and biological weapons ...true or not, they are certainly well armed, loving nothing better than a shopping spree at a weekend gun show.There are lots of fellow travelers. Emilio Ippolito and a small band of relatives and followers claimed divine right to set up "constitutional court" with their own arrest powers. A kindred soul, Charles Eidson, opened the avowedly racist and anti-Semitic Church of the Avenger, which according to police sources had as many as 30 people.A common theme among the militia members and related groups is the claim that the U.S. and local governments are illegitimate. Many of them drive without licenses and disdain paying taxes. And, many, such as Ippolito and tax foe Gerald Madison, go to jail.Teitelbaum says that a major change has been the extremists' transformation from "low-tech, low-cost to high-tech, low-cost." The militi as, he notes, are armed with modems as well as semi-automatic rifles.You can find evidence of that claim on the Internet. Try the Conspiracy Page (http://ROCK.SAN.UC.EDU/~TAYLORRM/index.html). It will guide you to such cyberplaces as "The Secret History of the United States 1962-1995" and the "Paranoia Home Page." There is Paranoia magazine published in Providence, R.I. The publisher won't use her real name, of course, but goes by Joan d'Arc. Her partner calls himself Al Hidell -- that's the name Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly used to order his rifle. "America's going crazy right now," d'Arc told The Washington Times (itself owned by the decidedly conspiratorial Unification Church). "Conspiracy and paranoia have been all over the news ever since the Oklahoma bombing, and now it's all the fault of the paranoids and conspiracy buffs. They blame people like us."And for truly unrepentant nuts, there is always the sometimes presidential candidate, sometimes convicted felon Lyndon LaRouche, whose literature shows up on the Internet and at local gun shows. LaRouche has been on the left, on the right; he's always in orbit. His favorite recent ranting is that Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip and the British secret service were behind the Oklahoma bombing.But this intellectual pestilence isn't confined to computers and literature tables at gun shows. Roy Kaplan, head of the Tampa branch of the National Conference, which seeks to promote better race relations, carries a briefcase stuffed with literature he has picked up on public school campuses. Racism, anti-semitism -- raw meat for the adolescent skinheads.NOT NUTS, JUST SCAREDBut social paranoia affects a lot more people than the nation's fringes. It affects almost everyone to some degree."We're going through a very difficult time," USF's Redding says. "There are a lot of changes, a breakdown in the social structure, decreasing quality of life. No one is sure what's going to happen." Numbers define the fears of the common folk:* A recent Gallup poll found that 39 percent of Americans believe the federal government "poses an immediate threat" to their freedoms. A U.S. News and World Report survey found that 58 percent of the respondents said the people who run the nation "are not very much or not at all like themselves."* Nearly 4 million Americans have fled behind the walls of gated communities -- many because of uneasiness over urban crime. Officials have even let residents of some communities in put gates across public streets. "They're not waiting for the police to take care of them," one local Commissioner said when a law allowing gating was passed in his town.* "Fear of crime drives behavior, whether that fear is justified or not," says criminal justice professor McCreedy. "People believe crime is out of control, and the cops can't fix it. Gated communities are an example of how people are responding to that belief. You build gates and walls between yourself and that which you most fear."* Those who build such communities don't disagree, although they stress fear isn't the only motivation for buying a house behind barricades. "Gates do add a sense of security," says John Blakely, sales manager at a development which has guarded gates now and plans roving patrols in the future. "In any city, as you are closer to the urban center, you have more problems with crime."* This year, 168,434 Floridians have valid concealed gun permits, according to the state's Division of Licensing. There were 56,158 new and renewal permits issued last year, but the peak year was 1993-94, when 73,679 permits were handed out. Why the spike that year? "We had the Monticello killing (of a British tourist), Miami tourist shootings, a lot of publicized crime," says licensing official Susan Harrell. "We got a lot of applications then."* Ernie Escobar, a manager at a gun store, agrees: "Back in '92 and '93, when we had a rash of home invasion robberies, very high profile stuff, people were buying guns left and right. Crime is down a little now. We're selling fewer guns."* Many malls now feature a security shop which is nearly as popular, it seems, as Victoria's Secret. Rather than silky underthings, however, pick out your favorite bullet-proof vest. Stun guns? Got 'em. Pepper spray? That too.* America's shaky economic structure has turned up the anxiety volume. According to the Urban Institute, men in the 25-34-year-old age group will earn a third less than their fathers did as young men. Meanwhile, according to U.S. News, the income of the wealthiest families doubled from 1977 to 1988. The percentage of income paid as federal taxes dropped 5 percent for the wealthiest fifth of taxpayers, while rising 15 percent for the poorest fifth. Class distrust fuels the membership of the militias, whose rank and file are angry, white, blue-collar males.* "The golden age has ended," says Redding. "There will be fewer middle class people. Jobs are going overseas. It's very unsettling to average people."* The government keeps doing things that exacerbate public paranoia. Most recently, the FBI proposed building a high-tech wiretapping system that would allow the agency to listen in on one of every 100 phone lines in the nation. Of less high profile, but just as ominous, Congress is considering a law that would allow millions of law enforcement officials, social workers, government fraud investigators and other bureaucrats to obtain the computerized medical records of most Americans who have health insurance.1984 IN 1995?What's in store for the future? More of the same. A heavier government hand and the continued explosion of insanity among America's unstable fringe. In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, counter-terrorism laws were proposed that would have done some sensible things, such as making it harder to buy bomb ingredients.But, for the most part, the various proposed laws were a rampage against the nation's most valued civil liberties.In that direction lies more conflict. "Give law enforcement the resources to penetrate militia groups," urges Teitelbaum. Futterman responds: "We're Americans who love freedom and our rights and will fight to keep them."