When Cults Are a Threat


The tragic events at a religious cult's compound outside Waco, Texas, may yet be followed by something even worse. As of this writing, a resolution that does not involve further bloodshed still is possible. But in dealing with religious fanatics of this sort, nothing is certain. There could still be another Jonestown -- a mass suicide and killing spree.

Fear of something like that is, in part, what led the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to stage its fatal raid on the Branch Davidian compound last Sunday. The federal officers were also motivated by fears that the heavily armed cultists were a potential threat to the populace at large. The arms cache known to be there included illegal automatic weapons and explosives. The people of Waco were understandably fearful.

Their sense of "menace" -- as one observer on the scene characterized it -- is what prompted local officials in Waco to ask the federal government to take steps. Even if Branch Davidian leader David Koresh's warnings of an apocalyptic conflict with the local community were dismissed as lunatic ranting, reports of mass violations of local laws involving child abuse, rapes, death threats, kidnapping and polygamy within the Branch Davidian compound required police action. No community can be expected to co-exist with such neighbors.

The local sheriff's department did not feel it had the manpower and firepower to confront the cultists, investigate the charges of illegality and make arrests. As it turned out, neither did the BATF. "The problem is, we were out-gunned," said a BATF agent, trying to explain Sunday's failed attempt to execute arrest and search warrants that resulted in the deaths of four federal agents and an unknown number of cultists. "I don't believe we were out-maneuvered or out-planned," she said.

Being out-gunned sounds like a result of being out-planned, as some critics are already beginning to charge. Such second-guessing can wait till this crisis is resolved. Then the ATF's handling of this situation needs to be reviewed thoroughly and at the highest levels.

This is not the first time that fanatical cults have accumulated and used weapons. It won't be the last. Nor is this likely to be the last time that a cult has been suspected of child abuse and other behavior that leads the larger community to invoke its police powers. When those future conflicts occur, law enforcement officials should have learned something from the mistakes and the successes of dealing with the terrible events at Waco.


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