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Politics

[Essay]

Horde Mentality

Mark Dery probes the intersection of anti-government paranoids and pop culture’s favorite symbol of doom, zombies

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Illustration: Michael Park
Mark Dery

April 19 marked the anniversary of the morning in 1995 when Timothy McVeigh, the blank-faced Lee Harvey Oswald of the militia movement, parked a rented Ryder truck in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and, at 9:02 A.M., detonated the 5,000-pound bomb that was its only cargo. The blast took a gargantuan bite out of the multistory office building, leaving a horseshoe-shaped ruin, its sheared-off floors gaping raggedly at empty space. One hundred and sixty-eight people ended up a burnt offering on the altar of McVeigh’s paranoid anti-government ideology that morning, 19 of them children, some of them babies. “That’s a large amount of collateral damage,” McVeigh conceded, blandly.

A character who missed the casting call for a Don DeLillo novel, McVeigh slept in children’s sheets decorated with the cartoon cat Garfield, his troubled dreams darkened by memories of the turkey-shoot slaughter of Iraqis near the end of the Gulf War, in which he’d served. (The military taught him to switch off his emotions, he said, for which he was grateful.) More immediately, he was haunted by visions of a coming societal breakdown, like the one predicted by The Turner Diaries, a survivalist-porn novel of apocalyptic race war. He wrote crank letters to local papers, complaining that taxes were “a joke” (“Taxes are reaching cataclysmic levels, with no slowdown in sight...Is a Civil War imminent? Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn’t come to that. But it might.”) “AMERICA IS IN DECLINE,” he wrote, in bug-eyed uppercase. He obsessed about gun rights—“I believe we are slowly turning into a socialist government. The government is continually growing bigger and more powerful and the people need to prepare to defend themselves against government control”—and stockpiled weapons accordingly; made a pilgrimage to Waco, Texas, during the government’s siege on the Branch Davidian compound; seethed with righteous fury at the FBI’s assault on Randy Weaver’s survivalist redoubt in Ruby Ridge; and worshipped the Constitution as holy writ, fulminating in a letter to a friend that “those who betray or subvert the Constitution”—the FBI and BATF, presumably, along with other faceless figments of the paranoid imagination—“are guilty of sedition and/or treason ... and should and will be punished accordingly. [...] Blood will flow in the streets, Steve. Good vs. Evil. Free Men vs. Socialist Wannabe Slaves. Pray it is not your blood, my friend.” After all, what are friends for?

When he was arrested for the bombing by an Oklahoma state trooper, McVeigh was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned, on the back, with an image familiar from the survivalist wing of the Tea Party demographic: blood raining on a tree, accompanied by the Thomas Jefferson quote beloved of historical illiterates everywhere, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Not so long ago, the age of homegrown terrorists, when black helicopters hovered in American dreams, seemed as laughably retro as an X-Files episode. No longer. We glimpse Timothy McVeigh’s dead-eyed ghost in the crowds at Tea Party rallies, hear his short-fused rants echoing in the discussions on far-right websites.

At a moment when zombies are everywhere, from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith’s inspired mash-up of the zombie myth and Jane Austen’s Regency novel of manners, to The Walking Dead, a graphic novel about humanity reduced to Hobbesian brutishness in a post-apocalyptic America overrun by the undead, to the splatterpunk videogame Left 4 Dead, the reanimated are working night shifts in the dream life of the anti-government fringe.

On the survivalist right, where paranoid fears of Obama as the rough beast of Revelation, slouching toward Pennsylvania Avenue, make common cause with white-supremacist nightmares of Our Precious Bodily Fluids fouled by the rising tide of nonwhite “mud people,” the zombie apocalypse is emerging as a utopian fantasy of a world cleansed by fire of the ambiguity and Otherness for which race is, ultimately, a metaphor.

The circular firing squad of Angry White Lumpen, emptying their political ammo clips at illegal immigrants, Nancy Pelosi, and the Red Menace in the Oval Office—everything, in other words, but the structural injustices behind their economic woes—sees zombies as harbingers of a post-apocalyptic world overrun by Obamaniacs, where the embattled vestiges of Real America make their last stand against an engulfing tide of border-jumping aliens, left-wing academics and brain-eating libtards. Stockpiling MREs and heavy weaponry, the survivalist fringe can’t wait to live in the America of I Am Legend, when our unwieldy, duct-tape democracy has collapsed into anarchy and we’ve reverted to the sociopathic utopia of the Western frontier, where every man—every white man, at least—was a law unto himself, free from governmental meddling and moral ambiguities.

Over at SurvivalBlog.com, author Jim Rawles and his fellow survivalists are digging in for an apocalypse straight out of Left 4 Dead. There is much talk of “hordes of zombies running rampant” when “the government fails.” Contributor Michael Z. Williamson thinks a wicked-looking implement called the Dead On Tools Annihilator Demolition Hammer will come in handy When The System Crashes: “Anyone with bayonet training can grip this appropriately and hack through a crowd of zombies, or heft it like an axe and use it on single opponents.” An anxious reader with “a heavily supplied, fairly secluded and defensible, and very well-armed suburban outpost with several highly skilled sons for fire support” wonders if he should secure “a secondary retreat for when it looks as if our ammo is exceeded by the number of urban zombies (or, police-state drones, same thing) invading the ’burbs.”

By “zombies,” aka the “golden horde” in SurvivalBlog parlance, Rawles and his fellow travelers mean “the anticipated large mixed horde of refugees and looters that will pour out of the metropolitan regions.” The term “horde” has a familiar ring. We’ve heard it before, in colonial whispers of rebellious coolies, out on the edge of empire, and in The Turner Diaries’ revulsion at the mongrel metropolis, that polymorphous horror of miscegenation and moral relativism. “The foundational morality of the civilized world is best summarized in the Ten Commandments,” writes Rawles. “Moral relativism and secular humanism are slippery slopes. The terminal moraine at the base of these slopes is a rubble pile consisting of either despotism and pillage, or anarchy and the depths of depravity.” Better to arm ourselves to the teeth, light out for the territories and rebuild society in a blast-proof City Upon a Hill, populated with People Like Us.

I’ve noticed recently that alot of survivalists and preparedness freaks are big fans of Zombie movies … where … a small group of people test their skills against an onslaught of blood-sucking and brain-eating ghouls. For White Nationalists it’s easy to translate Non-Whites into the role of the Zombies as they’re certainly blood sucking leeches who are overrunning and ruining our countries and who in some cases are literally trying to prey on us and eat us (remember that case a little while ago where that Black guy in East Texas killed and ate his White girlfriend? I’ll bet she didn’t foresee him turning into a Zombie and eating her.)

–“Browning 35,” in a discussion thread on the white-supremacist website Stormfront.org

I’m a big fan of the zombie survival stuff. I’ve read the Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks as well as his novel World War Z. Both were fun reads but certainly lacking as far as hardcore survival goes. One must always remember that in a more realistic SHTF [Shit Hits the Fans] situation we will be facing armed opposition not some mindless shambling horde, but it’s still nice to imagine sitting on a rooftop all day with a boomstick popping zombie skulls.

–Chrispy, later in the same thread

Unfortunately for the blood-and-soil gang, history teaches us that the war of all against all doesn’t end at the gates of the Fuhrerbunker. It’s only a matter of time, after the chairs are jammed against the doors and the windows are nailed shut, before the survivors succumb to power struggles and paranoia. Worse yet, you can’t always tell Us from Them. “Eyewitness accounts described the assassins as ordinary-looking people,” says a radio announcer in Night of the Living Dead.

Aren’t they always?

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