In the final analysis, David Koresh is responsible for the tragic events at the Branch Duvidian compound near Waco. But he is dead, while the issues that swirled around him-God and Guns-live on.
Because he was being sought by the much-maligned ATF for firearms violations, Koresh became a poster boy for those who believe that the government wants to wipe out freedom by making it harder for citizens to possess firearms. (And if you think that over-regulation of guns is one of America’s major social problems, I’ve got some recently cleared acreage near Waco I’d like to sell you.)
It goes without saying that a fanatic like David Koresh doesn’t represent the typical gun owner or the typical Christian. Still, because his seel seemed to have some distant affinity with Christianity, Koresh found a place inside the big tent with many who argue that religion is under attack in America today. In the minds of some believers, there is a line leading from Supreme Court decisions banning school prayer and religious displays to the smoldering ruins of the Branch Davidian compound. To them Koresh was not a polygamous megalomaniac but a martyr. So they continued to defend him for their own political and psychological reasons, even after the grim evidence of child abuse and mass suicide.
WHAT HAPPENED AT MOUNT CARMEL was tragic for the adults in die compound, who eventually might have learned to think for themselves and emerged to rejoin society. And it was doubly tragic for the children, who never had a chance to taste freedom and make their own choices in life.
That’s the conventional wisdom: What a waste of human life. But David Koresh and his most ardent followers no doubt would proclaim the Mount Carmel Armageddon a glorious triumph, a justification of their faith, a fulfillment of prophecy.
And that is why Koresh and people like him vanish off the radar screen of our society. Their up is our down, their success our failure. There is nothing in the criminology manuals that tells agents what to do when those under siege don’t want cars or drugs or money, but immortality. The feds plodded dutifully through their procedures, considering options and factors, but a David Koresh is the Anti-Procedure, the Factor that will not factor. The FBI could have negotiated for a thousand days and never understood the Branch Davidians.
“Nothing human is alien to me,” said the ancient Roman in what must be the ultimate statement of tolerance. But he never met David Koresh. In the coming flood of insta-books on the cult, I hope someone sheds light on the psychosocial forces that led these people to Mount Carmel.
Were they all just crazy, psychotic? It’s comforting to believe that they were, because crazy people are Them, not Us. But it’s a hard call. Millions of people believe in a messiah who lived thousands of years ago; the cultists believed in a messiah who played rock music and drove a Camaro. Americans in large majorities believe in life after death and the supernal lirai; so do the Davidians, who exist on a social continuum alongside lukewarm Methodists, devout Catholics, fervent Pentecostals and all the other varieties of religious experience. Most Americans consider themselves religious, but most get off the train long before it reaches Rancho Apocalypse.
WHILE SO MANY WERE SECOND-GUESSing the ATF and FBI, I found myself wondering what I might have said had I been chosen-perhaps by a lottery, with proceeds benefiting Texas schools-to negotiate with David Koresh, What promises or threats would move such a mind?
I have my doubts about supernatural beings, so I couldn’t tell him anything about angels, devils, werewolves or centaurs. I don’t know anything about divine rewards or retribution, so I couldn’t promise him the glories of heaven or threaten him with being toasted forever on the coals of hell.
On the other hand, how could I urge him to cast aside his faith and rely strictly on Reason, Common Sense and those other sunny verities that sustained Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin? Our century is awash in the blood spilled by enlightened men using thoroughly scientific weapons. Whether we follow our faith or our reason, our passions or our prayers, some of us are going to make this life hell for ourselves and others.
And that may be one reason the world is unbearable for cultists and others who flee it. Asking David Koresh to come back to society would mean asking him to accept the two-hearted nature of things, the inter-meshed good and evil of the beautiful. chaotic world in which there is no perfect justice, no certain punishment for the killers of children and the killers of nations.
Perhaps nothing could have changed Koresh’s mind. But his followers might have chosen other paths had they favored not the murky mysticism of Revelations but the bracing words of Ecclesiastes, which counsels us to accept human frailty and bear the burdens of fate: “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.. .but time and chance happen to them all.”