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Hundreds of bodies are strewn around the Jonestown commune in Jonestown, Guyana, where more than 900 members of the People's Temple committed suicide in November 1978. The Rev. Jim Jones, the group's leader—who urged his disciples to drink cyanide-laced grape punch—was among the dead.

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Bearing an inverted flag as a protest, Bill Goehler of Marysville, California, rode his motorcycle to Jordan, Montana, in 1996 to show support for the Freemen, an anti-government group.

But Barkun’s interests lie mainly with millennial movements–groups of people who anticipate a sudden and total transformation of the world in connection with the new millennium. Barkun has studied these groups for more than 30 years. "Most millennialists tend to believe this final consummation–when history ends–will be preceded by a final struggle between good and evil," he says. "This has most frequently been symbolized by the battle of Armageddon."

The concept was originally Christian, he says, appearing only in the New Testament. But the idea of a climactic battle between good and evil is common in millenarian thought throughout the world. "Millennialists usually draw sharp distinctions between good and evil, between the forces of light and darkness. They see the climax of history as a point where the forces of light finally defeat the forces of darkness, and everything will be perfect after that."

Despite the images of a violent end, Barkun notes that the vast majority of millennialists are law abiding and nonviolent. "There are millennialists who have been completely passive," he says. "That is, they’ve taken the view that God, or the forces of history, or whatever mechanism is supposed to be moving this process along, will make these things happen through some kind of inevitability or superior force that is part of God’s plan. Therefore the individual doesn’t have to do anything except wait for it to happen. But others believe they have a role to play in this struggle. With them, there is the potential for confrontation."

Over the last 20 years, a number of groups with millenarian beliefs have been involved in acts of violence. Most publicized were the 1978 mass suicide of People’s Temple members in Jonestown, Guyana; the deadly 1993 armed standoff with the strongly millennialist Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas; and the 1997 mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate group in San Diego. The most recent was in March, when more than 600 people were burned alive in the church of Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in Uganda. Bodies of murdered church members have since been dug up at other sites, bringing the death toll to more than 1,000. Barkun also mentions the group Aum Shinrikyo, which killed five people in 1995 with a nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway. "Their millennialism was a rather strange mix of Buddhism, Christianity, Nostradamus, and a lot of other ingredients," he says. "Many times when violence is involved, it occurs because a group believes it is being threatened from the outside, or the violence may be directed at its own members, as in the case of mass suicides. Aum Shinrikyo was unusual in that it was a first user of violence and directed the violence at a random population."

As 2000 approached, concerns over the possibility of violence extended to federal law enforcement officials. A 1999 FBI report called Project Megiddo concluded that specific acts of millennium-related violence were impossible to predict. As it turned out, no major incidents materialized. Barkun says anyone planning to help bring about the end of history may have chosen to wait until law enforcement officials were not as vigilant, but adds that expectations of the millennium don’t necessarily center around a year with three zeroes. "The feeling was, if it was a millennial year, people who anticipate a total transformation of society would focus on that particular year rather than others. And that simply isn’t the case. That said, I think there will continue to be a certain amount of anxiety about these issues for quite a while, because there are a large number of groups that build their belief systems around other dates between now and roughly 2020. So there’s no reason to assume that this will disappear." Barkun notes that law enforcement officials and the public are right to be concerned about the greater tendency to find potentially violent groups built around religious beliefs rather than secular political ideologies. "The potential role of religion and therefore doctrines of sudden millennial change are real," he says. "And they’re not necessarily built around the year 2000."

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