OF all the troubling questions raised by the tragedy at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, perhaps the most disturbing arose a few days after some 90 cult members met their firey death. It was then that several national public opinion polls reported that an overwhelming majority of Americans found no fault with the way law-enforcement authorities had brought the standoff to a head last Monday.
This was not the initial response: The Justice Department said that among the thousands who reacted immediately by telephone and fax when they saw television images of the Davidian inferno, sentiment ran 10 to 1 against Attorney General Janet Reno and the FBI. But by Tuesday, when the government's spin doctors had gone on the offensive, 8 out of 10 messages to the Justice Department were conveying approval, and by Wednesday the polls showed that a clear majority of Americans gave their blessings to the o peration and its outcome.
Such enthusiasm for an exercise that was botched from the beginning, that ended in a horrible blood bath, and that continues to pose agonizing questions, ought to dismay all of us: We have allowed our national zeal for "law and order" to carry us beyond the bounds of reason.
Last week when the FBI, using tanks borrowed from the armed forces, smashed through walls at the Davidian compound and lobbed in tear gas canisters, I was still trying to understand how the confrontation had begun on Feb. 28.
Why the initial assault by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), an arm of the Treasury Department? We were told that cult members led by David Koresh had acquired a substantial arsenal of illegal automatic weapons. But such arsenals are to be found in many communities all over our country, usually in the possession of respectable citizens who claim the protection of the Second Amendment. They are rarely subjected to raids by armed federal agents. Mr. Koresh had bought his weapons openly and had threatened no one with them. So what was ATF doing there in the first place?
We were also told there were "reports" of possible child abuse within the compound. None of those claims have been substantiated - but if they had been, since when does ATF deal with child abuse? This much we know: The children who died because of last week's federal assault will be abused no more.
The initial assault depended on the element of surprise, the ATF raiding party later conceded. But somehow the surprise was spoiled, and even before the ATF mounted its assault, leaders knew their attack was expected. Why did they go ahead anyway?
In the 51-day siege that followed, federal spokesmen repeatedly stressed that they would patiently negotiate, that they would wait out Koresh, that they needed to precipitate no dangerous action that might lead to loss of human life. Why, then, did they mount their attack last Monday?
We were told that FBI agents were exhausted and needed to act and go home. Since when is fatigue a sufficient motive for assault? We were told that various "experts" had assured the Justice Department and the FBI that an assault would lead to a peaceful resolution. Where is the government recruiting its experts?
What caused the inferno that followed the federal agents' tear-gas barrage remains, at this writing, a matter of conjecture. Was it really a mass suicide - the kind of suicide that the government's experts predicted would not happen? Was it excessive force by the official raiders?
Or should we speculate that the Branch Davidians' real crime - the crime that had to be punished even by the most extreme means - was their stubborn refusal to bow to conventional orthodoxy and official authority? Are we so determined to be a nation of tractable subjects that all dissidents must be rooted out?
These are deeply vexing questions, and credible answers may be a long time coming - if they come at all. But most vexing of all is the willingness of Americans to rush to the government's support before the answers are in, and in the face of overwhelming evidence that wretched blunders have been committed. When large numbers of our fellow citizens are ready to give that kind of blank check to police authorities, democracy is in acute peril.