On April 19, 1993, I picked up a newspaper on my way to a dentist's appointment. On the front page was a picture of the burning Branch Davidian compound, the climax of the FBI's two-month siege. When I expressed my horror to my dentist, he said dismissively, "It was a cult." This reaction, I would soon learn, was widespread.
Why Waco?, written by two professors of religious studies, addresses the way people reacted to the Branch Davidians, both before and after the fatal confrontation. While it condemns the government's actions as "inexcusable," it is not primarily an analysis of those acts, but rather a study in the age-old phenomenon of hostility to people who think differently from the mainstream.
The book covers the history and ideas of the Mount Carmel community in considerable detail. This portion is thorough to the point of boredom; after all, the particulars of their religion have no bearing on whether the government acted rightly or wrongly. But the authors' purpose is to break down the "cult" stereotype. In the view of some, Koresh had charismatic powers which allowed him to lead his followers blindly in spite of anything they had believed before. The authors show that Koresh's claims, bizarre as they were, were part of the development of a religious community, a faction of the Seventh-Day Adventists, that long predated his rise to prominence in it. Some of the people living in the Waco property had been there since the 1950's.
This isn't to say that Koresh's claim to be a new Messiah was even remotely rational; the point is that his following requires no sinister or extraordinary explanation. People followed him of their own free will, just as earlier Adventists accepted William Miller's prediction of Jesus's return in 1844 and stayed with him in spite of his failed prophecy, and just as many people become atheists or Buddhists or Catholics for good or bad reasons of their own. Some got fed up with Koresh and left without being hindered.
The discussion of the stereotyping of fringe religious groups as "cults" is the strongest part of the book. Two types of anti-cult groups are distinguished: the nondenominational ones such as the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) and Council on Mind Abuse (COMA), which don't define their target clearly but limit it to fringe religions, and the conservative Christian anticult groups such as Christian Research Institute (CRI), which look with suspicion on all non-Christian beliefs. The authors note that the criteria used by the conservative Christian groups are so sweeping that Jesus and his followers would be considered a "dangerous cult" by their standards.
The authors state that "opponents of 'cults,' and especially advocates of deprogramming, base their understanding of affiliation on an image of the passive self acted upon by others and manipulated according to their will. Things happen to the passive self, which is at the mercy of irresistibly superior forces." Although they do not put it in these terms, the authors are effectively noting that the "cult" stereotype implicitly denies free will. They cite a Cult Awareness Network flyer which answers the question, "Who is vulnerable?" with: "Everyone -- often those who believe they are too intelligent or strongwilled to be recruited."
It is true that many people can be led with frightening ease to follow authority; we have all heard of the studies in which subjects obediently pushed buttons which they believed were inflicting pain on other experimental subjects. But people can choose to follow or not; the instructions of a test administrator, the reassurances of a party leader, or the teachings of a messiah do not relieve the individual of responsibility. If many people follow leaders out of a wish to escape responsibility, they remain responsible even for that wish.
Fear of a "cult leader" with occult powers of the mind contributed to an atmosphere of fear and hatred of the Branch Davidians. People tend to despise whatever is alien; and while the ideas of Koresh's group were indeed alien to most Americans, the cult image made their otherness seem total. As a result, many people simply did not care -- or were actually pleased -- when the Davidians were subjected to 24-hour loud noises for weeks, when tanks smashed vehicles around their home, when they were attacked with CS gas, and even when they burned to death. A footnote in the book cites some of the Branch Davidian jokes which circulated shortly after the fire; I had been fortunate enough not to hear them before, and I won't trouble you with them. Perhaps we should ask who were the true "cult followers": the Branch Davidians, or the members of the general public who allowed themselves to be swept up in an atmosphere of hatred.
Tabor and Gallagher note that the government applied the image of the Davidians as mindless zombies only when it was convenient. When it put several of the survivors on trial afterward, the prosecution treated them as fully responsible for their actions; ironically, some of the defendants let their lawyers present them as helpless victims of brainwashing who weren't responsible for anything they had done.
The book draws an interesting contrast between Jim Jones' followers in Jonestown and the Branch Davidians in Waco, rebutting the myth that the two groups were largely alike. The "People's Temple" isolated itself from society, both in doctrine and in social action, moving as a group to Guyana before abandoning life on earth altogether. The Davidians were a close-knit community, but continued to deal with the people around them. Their doctrine was apocalyptic, not suicidal. The comparison to Jonestown allows people to believe that every adult in the compound wanted to burn to death; but this is not the case. If the fire in which they died was started by some of their members -- a question which still has not been settled -- their action was a response to a terrifying assault following an abusive siege. Some of the Davidians got out alive while others died trying to escape the fire. More undoubtedly would have escaped if not for the tanks' destruction of exit routes. The guilt of Janet Reno and the FBI in precipitating their deaths cannot be brushed away with invalid comparisons to Jonestown.
Fanatical hostility to people who are different has accounted for vast amounts of bloodshed through history, and the public reaction to the events at Waco suggests it is by no means dead in America. Perhaps Why Waco? will make people more aware of the dangers of intolerance and the horror of its manifestation in Texas.
Index of reviews