Copyright 1997 Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
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April 22, 1997, Tuesday,
SECTION: Metro; Part B; Page 7; Metro Desk
LENGTH: 880 words
HEADLINE: PERSPECTIVE ON THE MILLENNIUM;
SEEDS OF APOCALYPSE ARE AMONG US;
THE 'INSANITY' OF SO-CALLED
CULTS IS MORE INTENSE BUT NOT DIFFERENT FROM THE BELIEFS OF MANY AMERICANS.
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,
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.
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
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
* 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
"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
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
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
"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
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