Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Branch Davidians and the Federal Government: Ruminations on a Tragedy

This essay, like the one on Madonna, was written for the Deseret Free Press in 1993 while I was living in Provo, Utah and studying Mormonism. It was written during the siege of Waco and reflects my passionate anger at the media, the American government, anti-cultists, and those majority of Mormons who couldn't even remember their own history. While this anger is still somewhere in the recesses of my memory it is not as passionate as it used to be. I suspect that something will come along to stir it to consciousness once again, however. Something always does.

The "Siege in Waco" is over.

The entire episode appears, at least to me, to have been the result primarily of a botched effort on the part of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Fire Arms (ATB) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Since when are warrants served by one hundred heavily armed men in flak jackets? When did the right to buy semi-automatic weapons cease in the United States? What many seem to forget is that it was the aggressive actions of the ATB which started the whole standoff; if it was not for the violent attempts of this federal agency, perhaps no one, whether federal agent or Branch Davidian member, would have lost his or her life.

As far as I can ascertain, and I must admit I am writing from a distance with little data on which to base my conclusions, the Branch Davidians had done little illegal. They were not driving into Waco on the Sabbath shooting their guns in the air. They were not indiscriminately killing local citizens. Accusations were leveled at them, namely that they were adapting semi-automatic weaponry to automatic status and that they were abusing children and women; I am rather skeptical, however, of such statements from government agencies who, historically, have been less than forthcoming about their various actions in the past. Clearly, these same federal officials began covering their mistakes with respect to their assault on the Davidian compound as soon as possible. Did they admit that the plant they had in the compound apparently tipped off the Davidians by his actions just prior to the assault? Did they admit that they blundered into an apocalyptic Massada-like scenario seemingly beyond their control? With respect to the accusations of violence against children and women: at present, there seems to be little evidence for this. The media reported that the children who left the compound prior to its destruction seemed "normal". This again seems like a retrospective rationalisation for the feds violent actions. One has only to recall the lengths that officials went to paint the nineteenth century Mormons as sex-crazed barbarians to raise questions about this interpretation.

In fact, it is interesting to briefly contemplate the various interpretative schemas the state apparatus placed on the affair. First, it was an effort to serve a warrant on individuals stockpiling "illegal" weapons. Then it was a hostage crisis, an attempt by our loving federal agents to protect the sanctity of American womanhood and childhood. Ironically, of course, the only hostages were the Davidians themselves, hostage to an aggressive federal army. Then it was an attempt to protect the children, a claim that seems rather hollow in the face of continuing child abuse in all segments of American society, including the continuance and expansion of abortion, this last in the name of the state apparatus. Amazingly the feds tried to have it both ways, to have their cake and eat it too. While their right hand was offering a script in which they related that they feared that the group would commit mass suicide (the Jonestown metaphor); their left hand related a scenario in which, as FBI Director William Sessions said, suicide was never a concern to the authorities.

By violating the civil rights of those within the Branch Davidian compound, the federal officials apparently blundered into the very apocalyptic scenario that David Koresh had been painting for some time. According to Professors Melton and Tabor, the Branch Davidians began, ironically, as a pacifist sectarian offshoot from the Seventh Day Adventist communion. In the 1940s they broke with the mother church over the issue of separatism as evidenced in the keeping of their noncombatant testimony; the Davidians believed that the church had failed to maintain this witness. Over the years they combined the apocalypticism typical of Adventism with a survivalist, weapons stockpiling ideology so to be prepared for the dangerous times to come. Apparently, this group lived within a lifeworld in which the eschatological Book of Revelation was paramount in their lives. At the time of the attack they believed themselves to be living the time of the fifth seal (Rev 6:9-11), a period characterised by the witness of the persecuted to the Word of God, a witness ending in the sacrifice, the offering of the witnesses lives up to Christ. In the end, this is exactly what happened. "Christians" "sacrificed" their lives as a "witness" to "Christ's truth". The feds, by their actions, proved to the Davidians that they were numbered among the "legions of Satan".

Clearly, the feds should have spoken to religious authorities (not the anti-cultists whose minds are populated by the "sociopathic" "delusions" that they alone know the truth about such "maniacs" and that only they, in their godlike knowledge, can save such zealots from themselves) about the history of Judeo-Christian apocalyptic movements. As Paul Boyer has noted, apocalyptic movements have long been a major part of the religious scene in American society. Koresh and the Davidians were part of a long genealogy of groups who painted visions of the end times when the "elect" would be persecuted by evil, abominable "Babylon". As at Masada, these "saints" were willing to die for their faith, to sacrifice their lives, when confronted by "officials" of the evil empire persecuting them. Unfortunately, for themselves and for the feds, these believers were not willing, as were the sixteenth century Anabaptists, to go to their Lord, to go to their reward, without a fight. Rather, like the Munsterites of the fifteen hundreds, they resisted with any means at their disposal, even obfuscation. To them, why should they be honest with the "leagues of Satan"? Only God had their loyalty. Perhaps the feds should be required to take a basic course in cultural anthropology, which teaches us that different cultural groups perceive the world in various ways, through various cultural lenses. The illusion evidenced in so many federal official’s statements, as well as others of this ilk, that their perception is the only "real" and "rational" one is simply an ignorant instance of cultural imperialism, of cultural violence and mental imposition. Ironically, this act of universalisation is often what these same individuals criticise in religious groups.

In retrospect, one cannot help but ask why peaceful mediation was not a first step in the process of dealing with the Branch Davidians, rather than a process resorted to after a failed military assault. To me, Attorney General Reno's response that she wanted "peacefully" and "nonviolently" to end the standoff rings hollow. One would have to make an incredible leap of faith to believe that armoured vehicles and tanks attacking a building are peaceful responses. Then Ms. Reno spoke of the "public" nature of the decision to attack the compound. Given that the decision seems to have been made by a small coterie of federal officials, this hardly seems like a public decision to me. The Orwellian newspeak of the federal bureaucracy continues to run amok. What amazes me is not only the poor military intelligence of the feds, but also the poor intelligence, in the reasoning sense of the term, of these our "officials".

Additionally, I was simply disturbed by Representative Pat Schroeder's bizarre "newspeak" on the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour in which she emphasized that limitations on public funds to maintain the siege as well as the necessity for the federal government to flex its "legitimate" muscle necessitated the action the FBI and ATF took. Apparently to Ms. Schroeder, human life must give way to economic and political concerns.

The media too has been largely characterised by a lack of intelligence and scholarship in their handling of the standoff. They have relied on a Foucauldian strategy of labeling that paints the other in evil, demonic terms. Utilising a sensationalistic, rather than a scholastic definition of the term "cult", they have painted David Koresh as a dark genius, a devilish puppet master controlling the minds of those psychologically disturbed enough to follow this obvious charlatan. The power to control via a discursive strategy is clear in such sensationalistic reports.

For instance, National Public Radio's Nina Totenberg (interestingly one of the few media organisations I know of which actually, though sadly only momentarily, asked questions about the categories it used to describe the Davidians) referred to Koresh and his followers as "irrational", as "sick", as "emotionally ill". Would such characterisations be used by Ms. Totenberg to describe the apocalyptic and violent revolts of African-Americans against the "legitimate" institutions of slavery in the eighteen hundreds? Clearly this discourse is extremely prejudicial. It is not unlike the racist discourse that continues to infect American culture. Clearly it is predicated on the foundations of the truth claims of Totenberg's media ideology. In the end, I can honestly say that I have not been able to differentiate between the coverage of the affair by the "respectable" mainstream media and that of A Current Affair. Can anyone tell me the difference?

The media, embedded as it is within their particularistic Enlightenment worldview, fetishises its own specificity to time and place. It talks and converses as though its own social and cultural boundedness is somehow beyond time and space, as though it alone is rational and objective enough to give you the facts about what is going on in the world. Of course, such illusions of innocence long ago passed from most departments of the academic world. Such musings are, ironically, similar to the primitivist yearnings current in our religious culture, a primitivism which fetishises its social and cultural particulars. Our media have not, unfortunately, cultivated enough self reflexivity or self-critique to make this self-critical jump.

If they did have the ability to raise questions about their own discourse, they might ask themselves about the use of such terms as "cult", "maniac", "madman", "zealots". All of these terms clearly are in the eye of the beholder. I was amazed to hear, for instance, claims that the Davidians partook of brainwashing. Every institution, to survive, must enculturate, train those within it in the ideology(ies) peculiar to it. All institutions brainwash in varying degrees. The media, for example, inculcate ideologies of objectivity and neutrality into their investigators. Perhaps the beholder should question their own illusions of objectivity, their own facade of being an objective all-seeing eye. They might also ask themselves about their reliance on federal authorities and ex-Branch Davidian members to "understand" the group. This is akin to accepting the descriptions of Thomas Sharp, John C. Bennett and other nineteenth century anti-Mormons alone to describe early century Mormonism.

How have sociologists and anthropologists used the term "cult"? Though social scientists have been far from univocal in their use of this term, they have, save for many psychologists, who have a monetary stake in the pejorative use of the term, primarily used it descriptively to refer to new religious movements in the American environment be this Buddhism in North America or a novel religious group like nineteenth century Mormonism, as Jan Shipps notes. The normative or pejorative use of the term by federal officials, the media, and "academic" and therapeutic psychologists should be a discourse that we in Utah should be critical of since sanctimonious, self-satisfied conservative Evangelical Christians utilise similar language to categorise the LDS community as "non-Christian". Clearly such a move is ideological, predicated on an attempt to grab power in order to determine a normative definition for the term "Christian". As LDS scholars have pointed out, this approach begs the question of how we define what constitutes a "Christian", self-definition or imposed power moves?

One of the great ironies of this tragedy, in fact, has been the response of Latter-day Saints here in Utah to the standoff and its conclusion. Though my conclusions are based on anecdotal data, on overheard conversations, on discussions I have had with Mormons, and on television "what do you think" segments on the local news, I sense the strong support of Mormons for what the federal government did. I find this a rather curious response from a "people" whose forebears fought several skirmishes with federal and state officials in the mid to late nineteen hundreds, whose leaders were referred to as "mad", as "lawbreakers", as "barbarians", as "fanatics" terms not unlike those used by the media and the feds to describe David Koresh and his followers. Like the Saints the Davidians simply wanted to go out of Babylon. How soon they forget.

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