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American Apocalypse: Books Examine Events At Waco

“The Ashes Of Waco, An Investigation” By Dick J. Reavis (Simon & Schuster, 356 pages, $24)

“Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America” By James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher (University of California Press, 260 pages, $24.95)

When the Supreme Court ruled, two years ago, that even the “abhorrent” animal sacrifice rituals of the Santeria church were entitled to constitutional protection, it could have been talking about the Branch Davidians. Religious beliefs, it said, “need not be acceptable, logical, consistent or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.”

The Santeria decision came just two months after the FBI had ended its siege of the Waco compound with an armored assault in which 53 adults and 21 children under 14 died.

As a congressional investigation refocuses attention on the Waco assault, two books, written from different perspectives, conclude that it was not just tactically flawed, but that its targets were devoutly religious believers who posed no threat to themselves or to a society that should have protected them.

For Texas journalist Dick J. Reavis, author of “The Ashes of Waco,” the confrontation involved “a group of people with beliefs incomprehensible to the majority of the population (and) police agencies whose operatives could not distinguish custom from law, idiosyncrasy from threat.”

And religious scholars James D. Tabor of the University of North Carolina and Eugene V. Gallagher of Connecticut College argue persuasively in “Why Waco?” that the events at Waco carry grave “implications for religious freedom in our society.”

Both books examine the events at Waco against the background of the Branch Davidians’ religious beliefs. Reavis has the stronger - and very critical - analysis of the actions of the FBI and Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco agents. Tabor and Gallagher are stronger on David Koresh’s apocalyptic theology. But either book will satisfy most readers - and cause many to reassess their own impressions of the events at Waco.

Koresh’s beliefs, they argue, were based firmly in “interpretative dynamics well-known to scholars of Jewish and Christian apocalyptism.” They were also closely rooted in Seventh Day Adventist theology, which has historically seen an imminent end of the world after a battle with the forces of a “Babylon” often seen as the United States.

And it was both ironic and tragic that the FBI, which took control of the siege after the initial raid by ATF agents, “unwittingly played the perfect part of Babylon throughout, validating in detail” Koresh’s scriptural interpretations.

As Tabor and Gallagher summarize them, Koresh believed in the imminent “climax of world history” as foretold in the book of Revelation. Koresh believed in a second Christ, or Messiah, who would be “sent before God’s final judgment upon the world to open the Seven Seals of the Book of Revelation” - and believed he was that “special figure.”

Perhaps neither “acceptable” or “comprehensible” to most Americans, as the Supreme Court’s Santeria decision put it, but nonetheless “logical (and) consistent” and thus deserving of First Amendment protection.

Neither book finds any evidence for the “child abuse” allegations that led Attorney General Janet Reno to authorize the final assault.

On the far more “abhorrent” issue of Koresh’s sexual relations with the young daughters of Branch Davidian members, Tabor and Gallagher delicately attempt to place them in the context of his “special, prophetic, messianic role.”

Reavis bluntly finds no justification, religious or otherwise.

In any case, Tabor and Gallagher say, these allegations “should have been properly investigated and (Koresh) allowed to offer a defense.”Compounding the problem was the FBI’s identification of the Branch Davidians as a “destructive cult” under the sway of a crazed leader, relying for that identification almost entirely on disaffected members of the community and on “cult” experts.

But as Reavis notes, “the line” between churches and cults “has nothing to do with the Constitution … and everything to do with the prejudices of a nation that has grown fearful of the diversity that made it nearly unique.”