The flames of Waco won't die Don't compare it with Masada


THE siege at Waco ended a year ago today, a little after 11 a.m., in a conflagration that Americans experienced first with horror and then confusion.

The temptation was to interpret the event in tragic or heroic terms.

Some used the word "holocaust"; some compared the death of the Branch Davidian community to the mass suicide of Jews at the fortress of Masada in A.D. 73.

Others tried to laugh it off.

Today, after much congressional celebration, an evasive Justice Department report and an inconclusive criminal trial, the events and images at Waco are so absurd that the temptation is to tell the story as a satire.

"This is not an assault," said the voice of a government official at the scene as an M-60 tank tore off the wall of the Branch Davidians' home and shot tear gas in their faces.

Waco is not Masada. The Masada legend has a straightforward tragic-heroic plot.

On a hilltop near the Dead Sea, deeply religious Jewish men in rebellion against Roman control, acting in God's name under a charismatic and articulate leader, Eleazar, killed their wives and children and then themselves, 960 all told, to avoid capture by an imperious, well-armed bureaucracy that they had defied, attacked, scorned and loathed.

Two women and three children survived. They were never prosecuted.

Masada is a simple saga about how fear of the indignity of surrender can be stronger than fear of death. Even the vengeful Roman attackers were impressed.

Fortunately, there were no telephones, loudspeakers, press conferences or behavioral "experts" at Masada -- no one to accuse the zealous parents of child abuse, to demonize Eleazar as a madman for believing he was a messenger of God, to dehumanize his followers as zombies with no will of their own.

Of course, the Branch Davidians were not the easiest people to love or understand. They seemed strange, weird.

They celebrated Passover, practiced "strict Christian discipline," believed in the literal truth of the Bible, maintained separate sleeping quarters for men and women, permitted polygamy and acquired an arsenal of guns in anticipation of the end of the world.

But for the most part they minded their own business, which was to have as little to do with the outside world as possible. To the bureaucratic state and its regulatory agents, this can be very annoying.

And of course the leader, David Koresh, was a "madman" whom the FBI came to despise and view as a coward because he broke a promise and decided not to -- out of his home and commit suicide on national television. So no one stepped forward to be the Davidians' friend.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms spent months planning and rehearsing the largest "law enforcement" operation its 200-year history. This turned out to be a major military operation, worthy of a police state, carried out against the domestic residence of an unpopular and readily stigmatized religious community.

The American Civil Liberties Union does not like guns, and it's very busy, so it didn't get involved in Waco. The religious leaders of our country do not like "cults," and the women's movement does not like patriarchal living arrangements, so they didn't much care. And no one wanted to seem sympathetic to "child abuse" or unsympathetic to the FBI

Throughout the 51-day standoff, an uncharacteristic silence fell over the editorial pages of many leading newspapers. In seven weeks of jeering, taunting and lunacy in which the government floated imprecise reports of child abuse, amassed an army to liberate children from their parents and engaged in a theological TC debate over the meaning of the Book of Revelations, witty and acerbic columnists just bit their tongues.

"WHERE IS THE PRESS," wrote one "zombie" on a cloth hanging out of the women's quarters of the compound. Yet the press, too, was a captive of the government -- kept at a distance, a mile and a half down the road.

Finally the FBI "hostage team" -- feeling humiliated and going crazy because law enforcers go crazy when they have nothing much to do (they had to listen to their own tapes of Nancy Sinatra and the screams of dying rabbits, blared at the compound to rattle the Davidians) -- decided it would "bring about a peaceful resolution" with a battering ram and tear gas.

"This is not an assault."

You know the rest.

The smoke and flames, the collapsing roof. A young woman on fire, declining the help offered by the talented "rescue team" and running back to her fellow Davidians in the conflagration. The charred bones of the dead.

And later, the spectacle of Attorney General Janet Reno giving new meaning to the idea of "fully accepting responsibility" by placing a taboo on recriminations.

For that her popularity among politicians soared.

Most of the important questions about Waco may never be answered.

Why did the agents first storm the compound? What evidence of child abuse compelled Reno to order an end to the waiting game?

Did the Davidians really have illegal weapons or just lots and lots of weapons, legally acquired, like many other individuals and communities in Texas?

Yet one thing is clear. Waco is not the story of how 81 men, women and children gallantly killed themselves to avoid capture by the government.

That may be a noble goal, but at Waco most (although not all) of them died against their will.

They suffocated. They were incinerated. They were surprised. They ran from room to room. The roof fell on their heads.

Waco is not a heroic tragedy. It is a travesty -- the story of how a helter-skelter community of religious fundamentalists and "end time" enthusiasts (the son of a New York fireman, the daughter of a Hawaii police officer, a black Harvard Law School graduate named Wayne Martin, an Israeli named Pablo Cohen) and their offspring (including a 6-year-old named Serendipity Sea Jones) were encircled with barbed wire, bombarded with irony, cynicism and indifference by the combined forces of our bureaucratic society and managed to hang together for 51 days.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran minister who was himself the casualty of the brutal Nazi state, wrote, "Only if you cry for the Jews are you permitted to sing Gregorian chants."

Perhaps in America it is best to forgive and forget and get on with making our democracy work.

Waco is not Masada, and those were not Nazis or Roman legions waiting at the gate. Still, the admonition applies.

Only if you cry for Serendipity Sea Jones, Wayne Martin, Pablo Cohen and all the other men, women and children who died unnecessarily at Waco, will you be able to grasp the meaning of that shameful day.

Richard A. Shweder, professor of human development at the University of Chicago, is author of "Thinking Through Cultures."

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