School massacre casts light on US 'prepper' phenomenon
Why so many Americans – including the shooter's mother, Nancy Lanza – are hoarding food and guns
WHO ARE the 'preppers'? The term has burst into the world's headlines as a possible clue to events behind the massacre of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
'Prepper' - as in "prepared for the worst" - is the self-adopted term of the latest variant of that age-old American stalwart, the 'survivalist'.
Survivalists – and preppers - have had a mixed press, but generally speaking the image is not good. They will argue with some truth that the pioneers were the defining preppers. With his trusty gun, and without aid or succour from others, the Daniel Boone archetype was ready and able to deal with everything the world could throw at him.
These days the term 'survivalist' conjours wild-bearded folk living in dingy cabins "off the grid" in the Idaho wilderness and Arizona badlands, or the Michigan Militiamen ready to die to protect their Second Amendment right to bear arms. Timothy McVeigh and John Nichols, the Oklahoma bombers, were survivalists.
Now it turns out that Nancy Lanza, the mother and first victim of 20-year-old Adam Lanza, perpetrator of the Sandy Hook massacre, was a prepper. Her sister Marsha told reporters that the last time she saw Nancy the conversation turned to disaster preparedness. "Last time we visited with her in person we talked about prepping and, you know, are you ready for what can happen down the line when the economy collapses."
Yet Nancy Lanza was no backwoods cabin-dweller. She was living in a suburban McMansion, with a lawn rather than a cabbage patch, in one of the most affluent corners of the world.
But she was prepping away with stores of canned goods, water, fuel, medicines and so on. And most particularly, she was stocking the armory.
There is something buried deep in the American psyche which says, simply, that if the world falls apart, whether by apocalypse or something more mundane like economic collapse or even individual sickness, there will be no one to help, but plenty to steal whatever you may have left.
The gap between the reality of a threadbare safety net with a medical care system which exploits the sick for profit, and visions of post-apocalyptic anarchy as recently imagined by Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, is narrower in the US than in, say, Britain or France.
No one has yet worked out why Lanza had slipped into prepping, why she was evidently preoccupied with guns, or whether any of this had much bearing on her son Adam. But she was not alone.
Best estimates are that there are tens of thousands of preppers. They have their own organisation, the American Preppers Network (APN), a registered non-profit corporation. They have their own TV show, Doomsday Preppers on the National Geographic cable channel, and numerous how-to shows on local radio stations. Then there's Pioneer Living Survival Magazine, and a shelf of books such as Preppers' Home Defence, available from Walmart at a bargain $13.56.
Watchers of the militia and survivalist groups point out two significant differences between the preppers and their recent forebears: the line between them, the Tea Party and the right wing of the Republican party is more blurred than ever, and a much greater number are women.
The APN recognised the potential impact of Lanza's affiliation before most, and issued a statement: "Our members, and others around the globe who share our philosophy of being prepared in times of emergency, are sickened by this event. We too are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters and to associate APN or any legitimate organisation that stresses preparing for emergencies with this barbaric act goes against everything we collectively stand for."
But posing as a Women's Institute vegetable-pickling club is disingenuous. Preppers undoubtedly attract a fringe element. "Prepping," says Barry Brummett of the University of Texas, "masks a wide range of stances and ideologies. But the more people are prepared, the more they are likely to have an apocalyptic way of thinking."
The APN website talks about 'The End of the World As We Know It' - or TEOTWAWKI - and the multitude of videos and blogs of preppers arming themselves while touting conspiracies about financial collapse and the coming apocalypse makes it obvious the movement is not only about peace-loving mums hoarding canned food.
Like Lanza, they collect weapons. They are buying into a very American culture of fear and violence, a culture with a proclivity for dreadful deeds proven yet again at Sandy Hook.