The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

April 14, 2013

The end is unusually near

— A month ago, I was gathered around a conference table with five other newspaper publishers to discuss business opportunities associated with the Zombie Apocalypse, a topic rarely discussed in the halcyon newspaper days of yore.

We have technology that charts readership. On digital publishing platforms, we see spikes at the mention of all things zombie.

Don’t worry. There are other – even, truer – ways to spike an audience. But it is difficult to avoid the growing evidence of post-apocalyptical yearnings.

By Wikipedia count, there are 60 post-apocalyptic series on television, many with attractively unkempt characters who face assorted challenges.

There are zombies for “The Walking Dead”, skitters for “Falling Skies”, some problem with the electric company for “Revolution” and full structural and biological decay for the speculative fiction “Life after People”, where everything (except characters, of course) is disheveled, overgrown or rusty.

There are also pre-apocalyptic reality shows (possibly also speculative fiction) featuring ordinary “Doomsday Preppers” and “Doomsday Bunkers”.    

In an episode called “Bunkers, Bullets and Blast Doors”, a family of four in Nebraska invests $450,000 in a subterranean 1,100-square-foot steel box with a living center, sleeping wing and six-month storage space, ventilated through a nuclear, biological and chemical air filter, pumping water from an aquifer 70 feet below, and powered by an encased and protected industrial generator.

To the uninitiated, it has the look of entering an elaborate gravesite.

The last time we were in this mood, people burrowed into their backyards to make fallout shelters.

Iranian uranium, missile tests and Korean antics may have a role again. Also, weather events (floods and hurricanes), interplanetary collisions (meteors) and the all-purpose “stuff happens” seem to motivate these preparations.

How preparation becomes prophecy depends somewhat on circumstances and who is absorbing the message.  It has happened.

In 1997, 39 members of Heaven’s Gate, a UFO religion doomsday cult, killed themselves in preparation for pickup by the passing Hale Bopp Comet.

In 1978, the People’s Temple, which started in Indiana and had moved to California, came to an astonishing end in northwestern Guyana when some 909 members engaged in “revolutionary suicide” by drinking Flavor Aid laced with cyanide.

There are also historic episodes in which whole cultures, under extreme pressure – aboriginal American people and traditional societies in colonial Africa – embraced a messianic and apocalyptical narrative and nearly drove themselves to extinction.

This bleak strain in human nature has been evident in recent weeks in our national discussion weighing the right to possess guns and the right to survive first grade.

Thanks last week to Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joseph Manchin III, it looks as if we will emerge sensibly from that debate with better background checks, endorsed by 89 percent of the American people.

Gun rights may be expanded to include stronger assurances against government registration and broader acceptance of concealed carry permits.

But it does not look as if anything will come of efforts to limit high capacity ammunition clips or restore a ban on assault-type weapons, which are mainly doomsday tools.

Lobbyists and politicians (and the media) cast this conversation in familiar terms about red states and blue states, liberals and conservatives and country dwellers versus city dwellers.

What was not true, however, were implications that some Americans, because of their political leanings, were more or less sensitive to the little lives lost in Sandy Hook Elementary. Republican and Democrat tears are identical.

Something else – not  disrespect for the families of Newtown – was behind the unease about safety and personal security that drove weapon and ammunition sales to all-time highs.

Whatever the source of our jitters, more of us place more faith in personal self-defense and a hole in the backyard than we do in our government to provide for our safety, security, rescue and recovery.

This follows from polling that has Congress in perpetual low regard and the president sinking fast in his second term. But that is not a good message for Washington.

When people finally assemble in good-looking gangs to occupy bunkers against zombies, skitters, and power outages, political players may still be where they are now, on their own.

Gary Grossman is publisheer of The Daily Item and The Danville News