On Thursday, May 21 the world as we know will come to an end. There will be a massive earthquake, and millions of us who have been deemed “saved” will rise up through the clouds and the ozone and straight to heaven. The rest of us, those “left behind,” will bleed it out and die in torment. Then, on Oct. 21 the entire universe will be destroyed by fire.
So goes the prophecy of one Harold Camping, who has caused a sensation from coast to coast with his springtime end-times predictions. A long-time Christian radio broadcaster, Camping, 89, reportedly made a similar prediction for 1994. When the world did not end (the 1994 government shutdown doesn’t count), Camping crunched the biblical numbers again and got this date for the so-called rapture, which scholars, prophets and all manner of snake oil salesmen and Holy Rollers have been trying to nail down forever.
If May 21 comes and goes and the only thing torn asunder is the nation’s credit rating then all references to the “Great Disappointment” will turn from President Obama to Harold Camping, at least in some circles, and then only for a solitary turn in the 24-hour news cycle, if that. This isn’t 1844, and frankly, since September 11, 2001, everyday for Americans has been one more in preparation for Armageddon, so one misfired apocalypse will hardly register anywhere but in the persistently hyperbolic blogosphere.
Of course millions of fundamentalists—Christian, Jewish, Muslim or otherwise—believe in some kind of dramatic End of Days scenario. But potent societal fear and foreboding allow the Campings of the world temporary crossover appeal, gaining traction with their numerological nuttery, and singular interpretations of holy text.
Especially today. Consider that Christian end-timers believe the second coming of Christ will only be complete after a period of great strife—natural disasters, war, famine and disease. Sounds like the nightly news. Nothing can spell “tribulation” like the endless chain of earthquakes and aftershocks, not to mention radiological disaster in Japan, plus revolution in the Middle East, global recession and ongoing fears of animal and human pandemic.
“Tens of millions of people believe in a literal apocalypse, which involves earthquakes, storms, disasters of global proportions and especially disasters related to the Middle East,” said Stephen O’Leary, associate professor at the University of California, in a recent interview for CNN. He was trying to explain why sales of underground bomb shelters are up some 1,000 percent since revolution rocked the Middle East and the recent earthquakes and tsunami in Japan.
But, [O’Leary] added, “Some believe that this is just a turbulent time and they have to go somewhere to ride it out.”
Elan Yadan, a clothing store owner in Los Angeles, is one of the many customers who rushed to find a bunker last week. Yadan secured a spot for his family in a Vivos’ shelter, putting down four deposits totaling $20,000—$20,000 that had been earmarked for a down payment on a new house.
“I honestly didn’t want to do it, but unfortunately it looks like the worst expectations about the world are starting to come true,” said Yadan, who had been reading about Mayan predictions of a global meltdown in 2012. “With the things happening this week, it’s better to be safe than sorry. And what good is a house if you don’t feel safe?”
But when was the last time Americans “felt safe,” really? September 10, 2001? Haven’t the last ten years conspired to make us uneasy and pessimistic enough to go along—in quite large numbers—with an endless War on Terror, including two major military operations overseas, and a host of expanded police powers here at home that everyday denigrate our constitutional rights to privacy and freedom just a little more?
Certainly, we have borne witness to more dramatic natural disasters in recent times than seems, well, natural. Before Japan, there was the 2004 earthquake and tsunami that killed over 230,000 in 14 South Asian countries; the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan that killed over 80,000 and left 3.5 million homeless; the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that left over 310,000 and 1 million (still) homeless; and the Chilean quake in 2010 (the country suffered two huge “aftershock” almost a year later in January, and then again in February).
More elusive but just as unnerving are the global pandemic scares, which have caused more stampedes for vaccines and face masks than they have any real, widespread human carnage: avian flu, mad cow disease and swine flu, for starters. It didn’t help, either, when all those birds, fish—and crabs—started turning up dead en masse earlier this year for no apparent reason, like something straight out of the Old Testament.
In addition to the man-made catastrophes, like the wars and the BP oil spill, of which there are still untold ramifications for the environment and the Gulf Coast economy, there’s man’s hand in making natural disaster worse, like the levies breaking and the outrageous response to the 2005 hurricane in New Orleans. The fragility of nuclear power is no more apparent than in the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear–power plant. Even the response to the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 caused more panic than it should have—mixed messages from the Centers for Disease Control, vaccine shortages for some not others, long lines of anxious parents waiting hours in the cold for their children to be immunized—it was enough to question what would happen if the country were facing a real epidemic.
But nothing matches the state of fear that our own government has foisted upon the nation in the wake of 9/11. Ten years after the fact, one still has a better chance of dying in an automobile accident or struck by lightning than getting killed in a terrorist event (odds of it happening on a plane: approximately 1 in 10.5 million), yet the restrictions and intrusive security policies at airport checkpoints have accelerated to the level where six-year-old girls are being frisked and the vast majority of Americans are convinced they must surrender near-pornographic images of themselves to the federal government in order to prevent another 9/11.
A massive national security state has risen from the ashes of Ground Zero. Generated by Fear Inc.— a 1.2 trillion dollar, perpetual state of alarm and emergency provoked at every level of society, which ensures we will never see fit to stop this voracious, self-sustaining industry from expanding.
Actual terror threats, like mentally disturbed Nidal Hassan, or overrated wannabes like Umar Farouk Adbdulmutallab and Faisal Shahzad, deserve our attention of course, but they too, are used to feed the machine, their crimes conveniently, if not so conclusively linked to the greater and more diabolic terrorist threat just around the corner. If our lawmakers, police and military do not respond to these threats with the correct level of iron-willed overreaction, or so the post-9/11 mentality goes, it is at their own peril.
It creates a wonderfully convenient feedback loop, with a seemingly endless supply of Hassans and Abdulmutallabs and Shahzads ready to avenge the last guy who was renditioned for “high level interrogation” or the last drone strike on Pakistan.
“Fear sells, and the sales pitch becomes all the more effective when the product being sold—boundless, endless war—actually increases the terrorist risk that we’re told to fear in the first place,” said M. Junaid Levesque-Alam, writer and publisher of the Crossing the Crescent blog.
For ten years our politicians have
manipulated our fear, manufactured or otherwise, for their own petty
ambitions. The greatest abuser was George W. Bush, who used the terror
alert system to silence critics and win elections. His own director
of homeland security, Tom Ridge, admitted
as much in his 2009 memoir,
The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege… And How We Can Be Safe
Again. He told how he was pressured to raise the color-coded terror
alert to help Bush win ahead of the 2004 elections. “After that
episode, I knew I had to follow through with my plans to leave the federal
government for the private sector,” Ridge wrote.
Indeed, on August 1, 2004, Ridge announced that the government had “new and unusually specific information about where al-Qaeda would like to attack,” according to a press release at the time. As a result, he raised the threat level for the financial sector. “As of now, this is what we know: reports indicate that al-Qaeda is targeting several specific buildings,” including the World Bank in Washington and several financial institutions in New York. He later admitted the intelligence underpinning those remarks was three years old.
Politicians and their surrogates in the media have gotten a lot of mileage out of 9/11—at the risk of putting us all in a constant state of paranoia. Just think, in 2004 Vice President Dick Cheney suggested that if John Kerry should win the presidency another terror attack was all but inevitable (they pulled out all the stops in that election). Four years later, he claimed that President Obama’s decision to close Guantanamo Bay raised “the risk to the American people of another attack.” He was effective, though, as the 9/11 card often is. Guantanamo Bay is still open, and Obama has recently announced that terror suspects will be tried in the military tribunals there, rather than in federal court, as promised two years earlier.
Meanwhile, partisan provocateurs like Glenn Beck, Rep. Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin have been particularly successful at raising hackles over the fifth column, or the “enemy within,” repeating Islamophobic dramaturgy ad nauseam, questioning who the “real Americans” are among us, not to mention the implicit suggestion that our own president might be Muslim—and foreign—and therefore more sympathetic to “the radical” ever-lurking in the shadows. Jihad hunters like Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller have even gone so far as to claim that Islamists have already “infiltrated at every level of society and every level of government.” Ask Newt Gingrich, producer of the apocalyptic documentary “America at Risk: the War with No Name” (see trailer here), sharia is coming to your town, and along with it, Allah, honor killings and burqas for everyone.
Add this to economic collapse, a few revolutions abroad, not to mention the Long War that sustains the gargantuan military industrial complex (which is like Godzilla burning through the US Treasury building). Mix in the constant physical reminders of “threat”—for example the jersey barriers that continue to muck up the nation’s landmarks and federal buildings, including Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, which is still closed, choked off by guard outposts and cement. Translate all of this through various message filters in the corporate media, which religiously hew to a bottom-line model that irresponsibly encourages hysteria and mortal political combat, and voila: chaos. Or at least perceived chaos.
That’s right—turn on the television, the radio, read the paper or check in on your favorite political blog. Sounds a lot like the world is headed for an ugly end. If not on Harold Camping’s time table, then soon.
Or is it?
“In part the world is on edge because the world is on edge: global warming, declining living standards, actual threats, etc. But fear has always been a powerful motivator in American politics,” offers writer Conn Hallinan in an email to Antiwar.com. “You know, Camping might have a point. I mean not that the world is going to end May 21—the baseball owners would never allow it—but if people are feeling like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis, one can hardly blame them.”
Activist blogger and lawyer Ken Krayeske suggests that people are more than ever succumbing to the apocalyptic zeitgeist, even embracing it. “The past ten years have really worn us down—there is no doubt about it,” he said. “I think it’s become easier to live in a state of fear than a state of confidence. Breaking fear takes courage and that courage is no longer easy to come by.”
Horror movies have always been a window into the culture, exposing and giving voice to our greatest fears, or maybe in this case, just the subconscious resignation to what seems to be inevitable. It should come as no surprise that Armageddon, while a popular theme over the last 50 years due to the nuclear age and Cold War, has manifested itself in a clear resurgence of zombie movies in more recent times, culminating in the mainstream success of AMC’s apocalyptic Walking Dead series earlier this year.
“Contemporary [zombie] films are realized within a general lack of trust in the government’s ability to protect its citizens from epidemics and terrorist attacks like 9/11 and the London subway bombings,” wrote Richard Bamattre, in a paper titled “Epidemic of the Living Dead: Zombies as Metaphor,” “this is coupled with the perceived inability of the scientific and medical community to develop and distribute treatment for infectious viruses, including H1N1 and the ‘metadisease,’ AIDS.”
Popular programming also reflects the corporate media’s key mission—making money—which fits quite well into Fear Inc.’s business model, and conveniently into any apocalyptic predictions to come down the great fire and brimstone way. As a result, cable networks like the so-called History and Discovery Channels don’t care if people hit the panic button—just don’t grab for the remote control. There appears to be no other explanation for the rise in graphic documentaries like Day After Disaster, Life After People, and Apocalypse Now. Politics, government and corporations, all working together for a better End of the World.
As Discovery Channel asks, “Is the end of life on earth lurking just around the corner?”
Good question. Depends on whom you ask.