The Waco Victims

THE flames in Waco, Texas, caught not only the United States Justice Department, but most of the nation unprepared. Interest in the the 51-day standoff had waned, but the deadly orange fire brought it back to a furious focus.

Branch Davidian leader David Koresh bears much responsibility for the outcome. Surrounded by police, he retreated into the role of a misunderstood messiah who would interpret for his flock the last days in the book of Revelation. The attack on the Mount Carmel compound April 19 gave him all the justification he needed to act out a martyr's apocalypse in front of a national audience.

Yet the responsibility of federal authorities for this tragedy must also be scrutinized, albeit nonpolitically. What started as a tragically bungled affair by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms ended the same way.

ATF stormed the Waco compound on Feb. 28 with 150 troops - though it had only a search warrant for illegal firearms. After the April 19 fire the FBI, the Justice Department, and US Attorney General Janet Reno could not agree about the possibility of mass martyrdom - either suicide or murder. Based on "psychological profiles" FBI Director William Sessions concluded it was not likely; Ms. Reno had earlier said otherwise. Derek Davis of Baylor University in Waco, who studied the group, says it was "obvious to anyone listening to Koresh in the past few days that a tragedy was brewing." If so, Justice's argument of action based on "impatience" is weak, especially given the children involved.

Two lessons: First, neither authorities nor many in the media took seriously the possibility that these were deeply devout believers. A secular age does not give people much credit for a capacity to be true to deeper callings, however misguided they may appear. The Waco flames tragically rebuke that assumption. Religious liberty requires more tolerance and understanding.

Second, Waco shows the dangerous possibilities of being manipulated or deluded. Calling Koresh a kook is too easy. This man was able to convince hundreds he was God - and to martyr themselves on his behalf. The capacity for manipulation ought to be more widely recognized.

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