WASHINGTON-With the doomsday clock rapidly ticking down toward midnight on New Year's Eve, the nation's angriest government haters say that they are primed and ready for action.
John Trochmann, the gray-bearded leader of the Militia of Montana, foresees terrorist attacks around the country if computers fail and utilities go dark. Ted Gunderson, former head of the FBI office in Los Angeles and now one of the country's leading far-right figures, predicts fire and chaos. Are they all bluff and bluster? While officials generally consider such firebrands to be more mouth than menace, the FBI and police departments from Washington to Los Angeles have made elaborate contingency plans to deal with just about any scenario.
Authorities are increasingly going on alert over the possibility that some cult or anti-government militia will choose the advent of the new millennium for a major terrorist strike somewhere in America.
Officials see the Trochmanns and Gundersons of the world as agents provocateurs who stir up anti-government feeling. But it is the silent operator that they worry most about. They fear the small cell or lone wolf who is out there somewhere, undetected by law enforcement. The 1990s brought the first real look at these shadowy faces of terror in the likes of Timothy J. McVeigh and Theodore J. Kaczynski.
Just last week, the FBI arrested two militia members for hoarding firearms, ammunition and fertilizer and plotting to blow up several installations in Northern California. Earlier this fall, a religious fundamentalist in Florida was arrested for planning to poison two judges with a concoction made of castor beans and rosary peas, which grow in the wild. With just 20 days left in this fading millennium and with many groups believing that a biblical end of the Earth is nigh, there seems to be a growing paranoia among many extremists who think that it will be government agents disguised as terrorists who will strike first. They fear that the government then will declare martial law and impose a "new world order" on America.
Indeed, they insist that many of the protesters at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle last week were undercover federal agents practicing how to disrupt society. "That was the dress rehearsal," said Jack McLamb, head of Police Against the New World Order who will sweat out New Year's Eve with fellow conspiracy theorists at their northern Idaho community, called Doves of the Valley.
To prepare, some extremists and survivalists have dug bunkers deep underground. Others have set up preparedness communities, both through the Internet and on isolated compounds. Most are stockpiling food, medicine, kerosene and other supplies to brace for Armageddon. In their view, the end has always been coming.
As the Bible says, "of that day and hour knoweth no man." Officials estimate that there are nearly 1,000 cults in this country, large and small. There also are more than 500 hate groups in the United States, many of them gun-loving.
A recent Newsweek magazine poll found that 2 in 10 Americans think the world will end in their lifetime and that 6% of Americans, or about 15 million people, expect the Apocalypse in 2000. "You have two months to live," prophesied a writer named Robert in one of many e-mails sent by fellow believers on the Internet.
"Space ends," he wrote. "Space does not go on forever." A magazine called the Y2K Survival Handbook recently printed an article on the "case for a long gun," with photos of homeowners keeping rifles at the ready near their beds. Warned the magazine: "The urban rifle comes into its own in abnormal times."
Edward and Katie Thompson have started the Freeservers Community in Kalispell, Mont., far up in the northern Rocky Mountains. They have stored food to feed 50 people for almost three years. That's the period during which they believe "God's angels"-also known as the "lost children"-will appear on Earth.
"My group now has 110 acres and a cave," they wrote in an Internet posting. "Running Glacial water (32 deg.) in the cave. Room for 50 people and 200 head of animals. Have had 1 fatality as to Bulls. Have you heard of trouble with normally mild-mannered animals turning on people?" A writer named Rick from Truckee, Calif., reminded Internet readers of the cannibalism of the Donner Party, trapped high in the snows of the Sierra Nevada near his home 150 years ago.
"I guess we can't say it hasn't ever happened here before," Rick wrote. If you are not prepared for any catastrophe, he advised, "you're taking your life into your own hands." James G. "Bo" Gritz, once a decorated Army colonel in the Green Berets, now deep in the militant Patriot movement, toured the country this year cautioning that Washington is planning Y2K problems to allow a global organization to take over America. At each stop he has set fire to the flag of the United Nations.
He charged $150 a person for the seminars and taught them how to pick the locks of offices, cars and homes-should anarchy reign. "When the law might fail because of any emergency," he told a Kansas City, Mo., audience, "the militias can supplement the police and government." Predicted Gunderson, the former FBI official: "There's going to be problems in some cities, depending on . . . which utility companies are prepared. The police won't be able to communicate. The gangs will rise up. And there will be riots."
Warned Montana militiaman Trochmann: "There will be this domino effect and then things are going to get real nasty."
Clay Douglas, a motorcycle trader who publishes the radical Free American magazine, will spend New Year's Eve in his hacienda in rural New Mexico, lounging on his La-Z-Boy. He says that he will watch the world go mad on television. "They're not going to blow up little old Bingham, N.M.," he scoffed. "Maybe Albuquerque. But the fallout will never make it over the mountains."
But police and government agencies insist that they will be ready. The FBI and the Department of Justice said that their criminal computer systems will make it through the Y2K date change (the computer glitch arose because older software could interpret the year 2000 as 1900) and that additional agents will be on hand to weather any crisis.
In Los Angeles, both the Police Department and the Sheriff's Department are preparing for possible problems. "We will have extra officers, and we have plans in place to deal with any unusual occurrences," said LAPD spokesman Jason Lee. The Sheriff's Department will open its emergency operations center for four days, beginning New Year's Eve and running through Jan. 3. In addition, an extra 300 to 500 officers will be deployed New Year's Eve and Jan. 1.
In a special report dubbed Project Megiddo, named after the hill in northern Israel where some are waiting for the War of Armageddon to be fought, the FBI conceded that there may be many would-be terrorists who have not yet been brought under their surveillance net. More worrisome are those unknown individuals ready to be martyrs for their cause.
In Sioux County, Iowa, Sheriff Jim R. Schwiesow said that he believes he will be ready, but he has his own ideas on how to do that. In July, he mailed a letter to 285 of his constituents, whom he had granted permits to carry concealed weapons, asking them to volunteer as deputies to help police their pocket of northwest Iowa. "Sadly and tragically," he wrote, "this nation has renounced the Christian principles upon which it was founded. Be not deceived, good friends. God will not be mocked. If He withholds His presence from this nation and leaves us to our own devices, we are indeed in deep trouble. And I believe that time is at hand."
He said that 250 volunteers have signed up so far. One of them is Maurice Scheider, a retired engineer.
"If problems arise, I guess you could call the National Guard," said the 79-year-old Scheider.
"But then everybody is going to be calling the National Guard. And who wants to wait in line for that?"