For months the FBI and local police have been warning that the millennium could mean an increase in terrorist attacks and hate crimes, as fringe groups do all they can to add to the chaos the turn of the century could bring.
Some Jewish, gay and other minority leaders have been warned to keep low profiles. Security at possible targets like Jewish schools and even such public utilities as dams and power plants has been increased. Police departments from coast to coast have canceled vacations and ordered their troops to work 12-hour shifts through the New Years' holiday.
Those who've been preparing for calamity got some vindication last week, when federal agents based in Sacramento, Calif., arrested two anti-government militia activists in connection with an alleged plot to blow up one of the nation's largest propane storage facilities just after the New Year.
Documents prepared by federal prosecutors allege that militia members were waiting to carry out their plot in order to see what happened with Y2K. With doomsdayers and end-of-the-world prophets predicting chaos, they allegedly thought it might be easier to carry out the attack after Jan. 1. Then, they figured, there would be so much carnage if the tanks blew, the government would be compelled to declare martial law. Public support for militia groups would then mushroom, the conspirators reasoned, and the federal government would eventually be overthrown.
The arrests in El Dorado County came after a more than year-long undercover investigation into reports there was a plan to attack a massive propane plant south of Sacramento. The plan supposedly involved exploding 24 million gallons of propane stored at the plant, news of which sent area law-enforcement officials into a frenzy.
The Sacramento County sheriff posted a SWAT team outside the plant for a month, the company increased its own security and officials began digging a huge trench around the sprawling plant to help prevent a car-bomb attack.
The two men arrested in the plot -- Kevin Ray Patterson, 42, and Charles D. Kiles, 49 -- have long-standing ties to area militia groups. Patterson denied in an interview with the Sacramento Bee on Saturday that he was planning such an attack, and Kiles' son dismissed the notion that his father was involved in such a plan.
But law enforcement sources say both have virulent anti-government views, and regularly consorted with others who share their beliefs, especially in a San Joaquin County militia group that operates south of Sacramento.
Patterson and Kile are just the sort of people the FBI and other security agencies most fear as the calendar counts down toward New Year's Eve: those who hope to capitalize on any chaos that might erupt. But officials say there may also be danger in a Y2K that isn't marked by catastrophe or violence. Some worry that militia groups or millennial nuts preparing for catastrophe will be driven to destruction if nothing happens.
"There are all these doomsday prophets, and what happens if nothing happens?" said Eden Mandel, a San Francisco official with the Anti-Defamation League who says the potential for a Y2K-related backlash is a real threat. "Are they going to try to bring about their own Armageddon? The truth is we don't know what to expect, but there are a lot of different groups out there predicting a lot of different things."
There's precedent for the fear that fringe religious groups won't be able to cope if the New Year comes in without disaster. In 1844, the turn of the calendar became known to Christians throughout the world as "The Great Disappointment" when the world failed to end as some had predicted.
The continuation of life on the planet triggered suicides and depression among those who were counting on it. In a recent report on the millennium, the Anti-Defamation League predicted that history may repeat itself -- only this time with more antisocial violence.
That prediction dovetails with the Project Megiddo report the FBI compiled on the potential for Y2K-related problems, a report that was recently presented to many of the nation's police chiefs to help them prepare for problems.
The report concedes there is no real way to predict whether violence will occur, but the FBI warns that the potential is real.
"Certain individuals from these various perspectives are acquiring weapons, storing food and clothing, raising funds through fraudulent means, procuring safe houses, preparing compounds, surveying potential targets and recruiting new converts," the FBI warned.
Among those the FBI has warned about are groups like the Christian Identity; Black Hebrew Israelites, a black supremacist group; and the New Americans, an offshoot of the John Birch Society. Like the late David Koresh's Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, before them, they all are said to believe that the New Testament, specifically the book of Revelation, predicts an evil-cleansing, worldwide battle that will rid the world of Satanic influences and bring about the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Other extremists have predicted that widespread computer problems, part of some bizarre United Nations plot to take over a crippled United States known as the New World Order, will be the trigger to set Armageddon in motion.
"This chaos will theoretically create a situation in which American civilization will collapse, which will then produce an environment that the U.N. will exploit to forcibly take over the United States," the FBI report said. "Therefore, these militia members, as well as other groups, believe that the year 2000 will be the catalyst for the NWO (New World Order)."
But the problems authorities have in identifying such groups -- and then determining which members might have real potential for violence -- are heightened by the fact that much of the recent hate violence that has plagued the country has been by loners who apparently acted on their own.
All of 1999's high-profile hate crimes -- Benjamin Smith's July 4 weekend shooting spree in the Midwest; Buford Furrow Jr.'s attack on a Jewish day-care center; and the July 1 slayings of a gay couple near Redding, Calif. -- are all believed to be the acts of people acting alone, all of whom hoped their crimes would spark some type of racial or religious holy war.
But officials are taking no chances, and have been cracking down on groups with even negligible ties to such incidents.
Smith, for instance, was once a member of the World Church of the Creator, and FBI scrutiny of the organization since then has been unceasing, according to its leader, the Rev. Matt Hale.
Hale, whose group is based in East Peoria, Ill., insists the "church" has no violence planned for the millennium or any other time, despite its fiercely racist rhetoric against Jews, blacks, homosexuals and other minorities.
Instead, Hale says the millennium warnings put out by the FBI are simply part of a plan to scare the public to the point it will tolerate strong-arm tactics by the government.
"I wouldn't even talk to them when they came out here," Hale said. "We're not a violent group and I had nothing to say to them. We believe the FBI is trying to eventually soften people up for something they have planned. If people are brainwashed into thinking there wil be mayhem in the streets, maybe people will be more tolerant of mass arrests and other violations of the civil rights of law-abiding citizens the FBI says are a threat."
But, Hale added, "It is possible there will be violence around the millennium from the people who believe in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. People may want to jump-start things to fit in with their particular viewpoint, but it won't be us."
In Sacramento, where synagogues were torched in a hate-related arson last summer, rabbis are being urged to keep a low profile. Both churches and synagogues are being outfitted with new security gear. Water treatment plants, propane tanks and dams are getting special attention from government agencies as January approaches.
"I've asked the rabbi to lie low," said Pat Macht, a member of B'nai Israel, one of three Sacramento-area synagogues hit by arson. "These millennium nuts are so crazy. I'm afraid they think the world is going to end Jan. 1, so they may go after anyone whose name they see in the newspaper."
"You never know how serious the threat is, but you've got to prepare for the worst," said Sacramento Sheriff Lou Blanas, whose agency has canceled all New Year's-week vacations and is putting its deputies onto 12-hour shifts around that holiday.
Similar efforts can be found around the country.
In California, the National Guard will have units spread out conducting drills in three separate sections of the state. Guard officials say there is nothing unusual about such a move, that they simply moved up a planned January drill to New Year's week.
In Skokie, Ill., the largely Jewish suburb of Chicago where Benjamin Smith started his shooting spree last July, authorities are taking the potential for trouble seriously, said police Capt. Jim Halas, a 44-year veteran of the department.
Most of the department is on extra alert for possible computer glitches on New Year's Eve -- "We don't know if the electric system will work, we don't know if the phones will work," Halas said -- but in Skokie the threat of hate crimes is always on people's minds.
"Especially in Skokie," Halas said. "Our Jewish community is so hyper about everything when it comes to this stuff. We have to be prepared."
In Phoenix, where 200,000 people are expected at a downtown celebration featuring the Judds, police and fire officials have made elaborate preparations, and security at the nearby Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, the nation's largest power plant, will be on "heightened state of readiness," said spokesman Craig Nesbit.
In Denver, police have canceled most vacations around New Year's. Officers have been placed on 12-hour shifts and leaders have spent considerable time studying hate groups and how best to defuse them.
A potentially ominous threat by a group of Denver cultists calling themselves Concerned Christians was apparently defused earlier this year when 14 members who had migrated to Israel were deported. Israeli authorities said they had come there to blow up buildings and exact other mayhem as part of their belief in the Second Coming.
The group has apparently dispersed and been quiet since its members were returned to Denver, said Lt. Frank Conner of the Denver Police Department.
"We take all this very seriously. We had people back at the FBI conference [where the hate group warnings were shared with chiefs from across the country] and we have an overall generalized plan to be ready for the millennium." But Connor doesn't expect violence.
"Maybe there will be some power outages and some grids will be down, but I don't expect anything more than a big wild party," he said.
Still, the city's 1,400 cops will all be working. Just in case.