What Happened in Waco?

Malcolm Gladwell’s lengthy essayon the Branch Davidians normalizes and humanizes a group that even to American Christians was a strange, unnerving cult. Gladwell presents a damning indictment of the FBI response to the extreme Adventist community that was destroyed near Waco in 1993.

Gladwell argues persuasively that the government negotiators never understood, or even tried to understand, the beliefs of the group they were dealing with: “Outside the Mount Carmel complex, the F.B.I. assembled what has been called probably the largest military force ever gathered against a civilian suspect in American history: ten Bradley tanks, two Abrams tanks, four combat-engineering vehicles, six hundred and sixty-eight agents in addition to six U.S. Customs officers, fifteen U.S. Army personnel, thirteen members of the Texas National Guard, thirty-one Texas Rangers, a hundred and thirty-one officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety, seventeen from the McLennan County sheriff’s office, and eighteen Waco police, for a total of eight hundred and ninety-nine people. Their task, as they saw it, was to peel away the pretense—Koresh’s posturing, his lies, his grandiosity—and compel him to take specific steps toward a resolution. That is standard negotiation practice, which is based on the idea that, through sufficient patience and reason, a deranged husband or a cornered bank robber can be moved from emotionality to rationality. Negotiation is an exercise in pragmatism—in bargaining over a series of concrete objectives: If you give up one of your weapons, I will bring you water. When this approach failed, the F.B.I. threw up its hands. In bureau parlance, the situation at Mount Carmel became ‘non-negotiable.’ What more could the bureau have done?”

Gladwell argues that “the techniques that work on bank robbers don’t work on committed believers. There was no pragmatism hidden below a layer of posturing, lies, and grandiosity. . . . They were ‘value-rational’—that is to say, their rationality was organized around values, not goals. . . . Because the F.B.I. could not take the faith of the Branch Davidians seriously, it had no meaningful way to communicate with them.”

In one exchange, an FBI agent tries to get Koresh to release the people inside the compound. Koresh protests that they are free to go whenever they want: “To the F.B.I. agent, Mount Carmel was a hostage situation, and the purpose of the “negotiation” was to get the man behind the barricade to release some of his captives. But Koresh saw his followers as his students. They were there of their own free will, to learn the prophecies of Revelation. How could he release people whom he was not holding in the first place?”

Gladwell concludes that the episode exposes the limits of American tolerance. We congratulate ourselves when we open new doors for minorities, but what is often happening is that we open doors when the minorities become like  us: “it is not exactly a major moral accomplishment for Waspy golfers to accept Jews who have decided that they, too, wish to play golf.”

What is harder is to extend toleration to groups that are not just different but inflexibly different and who exaggerate those differences: “It is a much harder form of tolerance to accept an outsider group that chooses to maximize its differences from the broader culture. . . . Americans aren’t very good at respecting the freedom of others to be so obnoxiously different.”

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