What Are the Waco Hearings about?


Washington. -- You surely ask why some House members are looking for political gain in the tragic ashes of that 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.

You surely know that with election time nearing, there is nothing so sensitive or sacred that politicians here won't try to exploit it for votes. Some Republicans are beyond shame in going after the Democrats who made the crucial decisions that led to the deaths of 80 members of the Branch Davidian sect and four federal agents.

You surely know that the National Rifle Association is pushing this hearing out of some abysmal notion that if federal officials can raid the Davidians because they stockpiled machine guns, hand grenades and other terrible weapons to use against law enforcement officials, then federal agents will soon raid homes where "ordinary citizens" keep AK-47s and other automatic weapons that are now banned in this country.

You may sense the widening notion that lawmen -- FBI agents, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the Secret Service and others -- are in disfavor and disrepute these days. And that some members of Congress seek to capitalize on the vague cries of some people that government is the enemy.

I've had many quarrels with the FBI and the CIA over the years. I am at this moment incensed by ATF leadership in drawing lawmen into an orgy of racism at a "Good Ol' Boys Roundup" in Tennessee. I deplore the anti-minority bigotry that infests all these agencies and police departments across the land.

But in the Waco tragedy, I know that the overriding issue is whether a cult leader can, behind a shield of "religion," have sex with 10-year-olds, impregnate 13-year-olds, and instruct children as to how to assault law enforcement officers and then commit suicide.

What fair-minded person can fail to be overwhelmed by last week's chilling testimony of 14-year-old Kiri Jewell about how the Davidians' leader, David Koresh, introduced her to sex when she was 10? Who thinks Koresh had some religious shield against statutory rape laws that allowed him to "marry" and produce a baby by a 14-year-old friend of Kiri's?

I have no doubt that FBI and ATF agents, and officials of the Justice Department made serious mistakes at Waco, and in the 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where an FBI sharpshooter killed Vicki Weaver, the wife of white supremacist Randy Weaver. I am inclined to believe the FBI carried out a cover-up of its mistakes.

But I find baseless and offensive the assertion by Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, that "all of these deaths were the result of federal government action." What blame does Mr. McCollum impute to Koresh and his actions?

We as a society have no solid guidelines as to how to deal with religious sects, or racial hate groups, or even the militias that are toting guns across the countryside, mumbling gibberish about overthrowing the government. But it may be impossible to write hard-and-fast rules as to what law enforcers may do within the restraints of the Constitution in such terrible situations.

The pity now is the absolute certainty that no such guidelines, nor anything else that is constructive, will come out of the current House hearings.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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