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April 22, 1997, Tuesday, Home Edition

SECTION: Metro; Part B; Page 7; Metro Desk

LENGTH: 880 words


BYLINE: STEPHEN O'LEARY, Stephen O'Leary is an associate professor at the Annenberg School, for Communication at USC and cofounder of the Center for Millennial, Studies: <> 

      With fewer than 1,000 days until 2000, it is appropriate to ponder the approach of the new millennium in light of recent events. If the tragedy at Waco, Aum Supreme Truth, the Freeman standoff and the Solar Temple suicides were not enough to wake people up to the fact that the millennium is serious business, then perhaps the fate of the most recent deluded messiah and his 38 earnest followers will serve as a grim prophecy.

The Heaven's Gate Web pages declare that we are in the "End of the Age" and that the Earth is soon to be swept clean of civilization. The disturbing truth about this group's suicide is that the members are far from atypical in their anticipation of catastrophe. They differ from millions of Americans not in the content of their beliefs, but in their intensity and in the extreme action to which these beliefs led them. They blended an eclectic mix of Christian millennial prophecy, UFOs, government conspiracies and science fiction scenarios from television and film. Their action may best be explained as an impatient attempt to anticipate the fulfillment of prophecies that receive the attention, if not the full allegiance, of millions of credulous Americans.

Consider these symptoms of our premillennial condition.

* Nearly half of all Americans, according to a 1996 Newsweek poll, believe in UFOs; almost the same number of people believe that our government is concealing the truth about these phenomena.

* Author Whitley Strieber's purported accounts of alien abductions are bought and presumably read by millions; observers of the alien abduction movement confirm that it is increasingly preoccupied with tales of impending planetary catastrophe.

* Art Bell's late-night radio talk show, now notorious for having publicized the rumor that an alien spaceship was hidden in the tail of comet Hale-Bopp, is broadcast on more than 300 stations nationwide; his Web page boasts 1.6 million visits.

* "The Celestine Prophecy," a smarmy New Age tale of personal growth, psychic phenomena and a coming global transformation, has been on the bestseller lists for months.

* The militia movement, galvanized in the aftermath of the Waco tragedy, continues to flourish in urban and rural areas around the country, fueled by rumors of apocalyptic paranoia that read like "X-Files" episodes. This is not surprising, given that the scriptwriters read the newspapers and watch television news as obsessively as any millennial conspiracy theorist.

Some who fear the power of the Internet are now warning of the dangers of "spiritual predators online." But why should we expect the Internet to be different from the social world that it reflects? If one is going to look for technological explanations for the recent events near San Diego, one might as well blame television. The group's web pages and the farewell videos give ample evidence that the members of Heaven's Gate watched "X-Files," well, religiously, and derived inspiration from popular science fiction in equal measure with religious scripture. And this line of analysis leads not to theories of cult brainwashing, but back to ourselves. It is our own preoccupation with aliens and prophecies that causes Hollywood to pump out product after product to fill the void left by the waning of traditional religion.

As we approach the end of the millennium, we can assume that there will be more bizarre incidents and gruesome deaths in anticipation of prophetic fulfillment or in the aftermath of apocalyptic disappointment. We would do well to remember two lessons from the recent madness. First, look closely at the ingredients of whatever millennial snake oil is being sold. (For this, the Web can be a useful tool; the signs of impending suicide were there for all to see.) Second, don't be quick to dismiss such beliefs as crazy. We may be entering a time when this "insanity" is being normalized.

Millennial prophets today bear little resemblance to the cartoon caricature of the bearded, white-robed figure with the picket sign proclaiming, "The End is Near." They can be found in business suits, at church, at work, on television and on the Internet. Their followers are too easily dismissed as hypnotized cultists. They are our children, our parents, our brothers, our sisters and potentially ourselves.


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