This Week in History: Y2K, terror and apocalypse

The various threats to our computers, airports and worldly existence were never actualized, but the hype and fears surrounding them were real.

Computer (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Eleven years ago, as the new millennium approached, widespread panic was culminating throughout the world about the Y2K bug, end times-like mayhem, terror attacks and even mass mental health breakdowns. Due to a decades-old shortcut taken by computer programmers, there was great fear that computers, which controlled so much of the world’s infrastructure and financial systems, would malfunction or collapse. In Jerusalem and around the world, a minority feared the apocalypse. In Los Angeles and the Middle East, authorities thwarted large-scale millennium terror attacks. Although the various threats to our computers, airports and worldly existence were never actualized, the hype and fears surrounding them are worth looking back at.
Several decades before the new millennium, due to much smaller quantities of memory available in the day’s computer systems, software programmers chose to represent the year in dates with only two digits instead four. For example, in lieu of coding 1988, computers were fed the two-digit iteration, “88.” Much later, it was realized that when the date rolled over to the year 2000, computers would not be able to differentiate between the years 1900 and 2000. Nobody knew how the various computer systems that had become so essential to modern life would react.
So serious was the threat of computers going haywire in a fashion resembling 2001: A Space Odyssey, that the US and Russia set up a joint military command to ensure that nuclear missile systems would not arbitrarily cause a nuclear apocalypse when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2000. The fear was not so much that the missiles would fire themselves, but that Russian missile defense systems would go berserk, and subsequently cause the leaders of the world’s two superpowers to believe a nuclear war had begun. It should be pointed out that no such occurrence took place. The IDF also set up a special command center and invested NIS 81 million to safeguard Israel from computer malfunction on the eve of the millennium.
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The Y2K scare also led to widespread fears of financial meltdown. Dozens of books published in the years and months leading up to the new millennium prophesized world-wide financial disaster and implored readers to pull their money out of the stock markets, to seek paper records of all bank accounts and to keep large stores of cash in their homes. Such fear mongers, justified or not at the time, envisioned massive upheavals of world order in line with 1960s nuclear doomsday scenarios, urging the masses to stock up on months of supplies before December 31.
Other fears included scenarios where planes would drop out of the sky as their computerized control systems simultaneously shut down, although that was not the only air travel-related millennium scare. Millennium terror plots were a much more real threat than computer glitches, at least in hindsight. The most famous of the narrowly averted threats was a plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on New Years Eve. Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian-born al-Qaida-trained terrorist spent years preparing for an attack on LAX, managing to fully assemble his explosive devices before he was caught by an alert US customs agent monitoring cars disembarking a ferry from Canada. If Ressam had not acted nervously towards the customs officers, he would have likely managed to arrive at his Southern California target. Other thwarted millennium plots targeted a crossing point between Jordan and Israel and sites in Amman.
Yet another doomsday scenario prophesized was more local and religiously founded. In 1999, Israeli police took the threat of religious zealots with apocalyptic visions of the millennium seriously. Israel set up a task force comprised of the police, Mossad and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to prevent destructive or violent acts by fanatics. The fear was that fringe Christians would try to commit provocatively-violent acts in order to accelerate what they believed was the beginning of end times, on the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. The government was particularly wary of attempts to destroy Muslim holy sites, attacks designed to enable the building of the Third Temple. Speaking to the fears of violence, then-Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert warned, “We will take the most severe security measures ever taken in the state of Israel in the past 50 years to ensure that nothing we don't want to have happen occurs.”
A related fear, although not exclusive to the millennium, was that there would be widespread instances of what is known as “Jerusalem Syndrome,” where pilgrims to Jerusalem are overwhelmed by feelings of holiness in the city and become mentally unstable. Although the “Syndrome” strikes regularly, unrelated to the millennium, in 1999, officials feared that a massive number of cases would occur towards the end of that year. One psychiatric official predicted that between 600 and 800 cases would overwhelm mental health specialists in Israel. “If all the people are crazy at the same time, we will have big problems,” Jerusalem district psychiatrist Yair Bar-El told Reuters at the time. Needless to say, the country’s mental health facilities survived.
The various fears and threats, both founded and unfounded, caused worldwide panic surrounding the turn of the millennium. Technological, terror, nuclear, religious and psychiatric fears were hyped but did not lead to the type of panic predicted. Worldwide investment in mitigating the threats posed by the Y2K bug, millennial terrorism and apocalyptic prophecies ultimately sufficed to ensure the world continued to exist and progress, for at least another eleven years.