During a recent “Nightline,” ABC-TV broadcaster Ted Koppel asked U.S. militia leaders why anger over the 1993 raid on Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, could have triggered the Oklahoma City bombing.
Some answers were predictable: The FBI, several said, had barged into people’s lives and used outrageous force. But there were also philosophical resentments - a belief that the right to be different had been denied.
It would have been hard to make such an argument during the 51-day siege of Waco and its tumultuous aftermath. The public was bombarded with media images of David Koresh and his followers as crazed cult members bent on abusing children and killing federal agents. Americans, from President Clinton on down to the average person in the street, shared this unrelentingly hostile view.
Now, two years after the bloody assault that left 84 dead, a different image of Waco is emerging. Critics are challenging the government’s version of events; they’re also questioning the way America deals with armed dissident groups.
Could lessons from the Branch Davidian debacle help us cope with the Oklahoma City terrorist attack? The answers are provocative and disturbing.
“Our government should think twice before it cracks down on all militia groups and infringes on civil liberties,” says Eugene V. Gallagher, a religious studies professor who has co-authored “Why Waco: Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America” (to be published next fall by the University of California Press).
“That’s what happened in Waco … public sentiment got whipped up and it led to an overreaction, a violent and precipitous intervention in their (Branch Davidians’) lives. We need the courage to face that now and speak out.”
Gallagher, who teaches at Connecticut College, and his co-author, James D. Tabor, a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina, are hardly zealots. Quiet and sober-minded, they are biblical scholars who have examined the record and believe the Waco disaster could have been avoided.
The reason it wasn’t, they contend, is that federal agents - like most Americans - were uncomfortable dealing with intense religious beliefs, especially when voiced by people outside the mainstream. Koresh, who based his complex and intricate preachings on the Book of Revelation, was actually a sophisticated and persuasive communicator in his own world, says Tabor.
“We were utterly convinced he was sincere in his beliefs. But they (FBI agents) never got it. Rather than try to understand, they dismissed him as a kook, as a cult leader. They called his preachings ‘Bible babble.”’
It’s a dramatic, eye-opening story, told in the book with rich detail. An appendix provides a wealth of previously classified materials, showing how Koresh and an army of federal agents failed to communicate with each other.
“Why Waco” seems destined to raise questions that go beyond the siege itself. America, the authors say, has learned nothing from the Texas confrontation and seems poised to repeat the same mistakes.
“This country should be true to its principles,” says Gallagher. “We should listen to people in the militias. … We should take them seriously and invite them into the grand public discussion. When you crack down on these people, they get defensive - and if they have guns, people get hurt.”
More important, he adds, it’s time to end our use of the word “cult,” which has negative connotations and diminishes people whom we find strange.
“America never saw the Branch Davidians as human beings,” says Gallagher. “These guys didn’t just load up the station wagon every Sunday and go to a suburban church. They did it three times a day, and that intensity makes people uncomfortable. We need to do a better job of understanding.”