What Went Wrong in Waco?

Begun in disaster, it ended in infamy. But could federal agents have avoided the fiery "final solution" of the Branch Davidians and ended the siege at Mount Carmel peacefully? Definitely.

Aside from the fact that the attack against the religious community should have never taken place, the easiest way to end the siege was for the attackers to leave. That's not as ridiculous as it sounds.

People who suffer a violent, unprovoked attack upon themselves, their home, and their church are unlikely to entrust their lives and those of their women and children to the attackers. As former McLennan County District Attorney (DA) Vic Faezell has said of the Branch Davidians, "They're protective of what's theirs. They're protective of their land. They view their land as Muslims do Mecca and Jews view Jerusalem."

For the sake of argument, let's assume that federal agents had just cause to search the premises and arrest David Koresh. As soon as they met determined resistance, all but a handful necessary to clandestinely observe the compound should have left the area. Since many of the Branch Davidians had jobs in the community and their children attended local schools, most would have come out eventually as the danger of further attacks subsided. The agents could then have questioned and/or arrested them individually, or at least had to deal with far less people inside the compound.

Another approach would have been to bring in competent negotiators, those who understood the mentality of the sect. Bo Gritz, who, along with Jack McLamb of the American Citizens & Lawmen Association, had successfully negotiated the surrender of Randy Weaver in Idaho last September, volunteered his services. He did not even receive the courtesy of a reply. Neither were family members allowed to help persuade those inside to surrender. Former DA Faezell, who had learned to respect Koresh after unsuccessfully prosecuting him in 1988 on attempted murder charges, had also volunteered to help. His assistance was not wanted, either.

David Koresh and others within the compound were on friendly terms with Sheriff Jack Harwell, who had previously had no trouble serving arrest and search warrants on Koresh for the more serious charges of attempted murder and child molestation. Koresh trusted Sheriff Harwell and Harwell respected Koresh. It would have been the better part of wisdom for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to have turned the matter over to the sheriff.

The FBI failed to understand the psychology of Koresh and the Branch Davidians. They treated them as criminals who used religion as a cover for perverted practices. They accused Koresh of everything from polygamy to child abuse. In their eyes, he was fickle and unbalanced, a maniac using his position to satisfy his lusts for power, sex, and drugs. They didn't take Koresh seriously as a religious leader, or student and expounder of the Bible.

Most criminals are non-ideological cowards. People who operate from religious conviction are anything but cowards and are very ideological. You don't treat the two the same.

Being of weak character, criminals succumb to pressure more readily, the better to save themselves. The more pressure you put on those who operate from principle, the stronger the group cohesion, the more determined the resolve, and the stiffer the resistance. The Branch Davidians are psychologically similar to the early Christians who preferred death at the hands of wild beasts and gladiators to the renunciation of their faith, and the 1st century Jewish zealots who committed suicide at Masada rather than surrender to the Romans. The Spartans who sacrificed themselves at Thermopylae and the defenders of the Alamo would have understood the Branch Davidians.

The FBI had no excuse for this distorted view. They could have consulted Dr. Daniel McGee, professor of religious history at Baylor University in Waco, who had studied the local Branch Davidians in depth. Although he did not know David Koresh, he found sect members sincere and benign.

In addition, two theologians, Dr. James Tabor of the University of North Carolina, and Dr. Philip Arnold of the Union Institute in Houston, Texas, had communicated indirectly with Koresh. The first time was through their appearance on a radio talk show to which the Davidians listened. The other was by a taped message delivered to Koresh by Dick DeGuerin, Koresh's attorney, with the knowledge of the FBI.

These men understood "where Koresh was coming from" and spoke to him in his own language. They took Koresh's religious beliefs seriously and used theological arguments to convince him that surrendering was consistent with his interpretation of certain Biblical passages. In a letter dated April 4, 1993, Koresh agreed to come out after finishing a booklet on the Seven Seals, and mentioned Tabor and Arnold as the persons to whom he would entrust the manuscript. According to the two, the FBI didn't believe Koresh was writing anything, but considered it another stalling tactic. Both are convinced that Koresh would have come out once he had completed his booklet.

Instead of listening to such eminent scholars, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (BATF) and the FBI depended for advice on the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), an organization whose purpose is to discredit and destroy non-traditional religious sects. Its members fan the flames of religious intolerance by painting such sects as menacing to governmental authority and dangerous to public morality. Its weapons are malicious gossip, unsubstantiated accusations, slander, frivolous law suits, and the kidnapping and deprogramming of sect members. The rhetoric and ridiculous allegations hurled against Koresh and the Branch Davidians are right from CAN'S lexicon.

Because of the Tailhook scandal, Secretary of the Navy Lawrence Garrett III took responsibility and rightfully resigned. The Branch Davidian debacle, far worse calamity in which 96 lives were lost including those of 17 children, cries out for more severe repercussions. FBI Director William Sessions, Attorney General Janet Reno, and Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen should all resign for their incompetence and disregard for human life. They had at least 51 days in which to prevent the raid or peacefully end the siege. As for the BATF, these "jackbooted fascists," as Congress-man John Dingell of Michigan called them, should be disbanded.

Three days after the Branch Davidian tragedy, President Clinton dedicated the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to the victims of Nazi oppression. The least he can do is to dedicate a holocaust memorial at Mount Carmel to the of government stupidity, insensitivity, and miscalculation. o

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