Listening to Waco

THE Waco hearings probably left most Americans pretty much where they found them: with a sense that this tragedy sprang from a tangle of distrust, misperception, and miscalculation. Mistakes were made, but the assignment of blame - especially blame in the sense of formal culpability - is difficult.

The federal law enforcers involved, from Attorney General Janet Reno on down, attempted to act on the basis of judgment and experience. Their experience, unfortunately, didn't prepare them to deal with the theologically tinted, highly emotional world of David Koresh and his followers.

In the hearings' closing days, Ms. Reno was repeatedly grilled by Republican subcommittee members on her decisions leading up to the tear-gassing of the Branch Davidian compound, which subsequently burned. She never budged from the position that the government's actions rested on the facts available then and on apprehensions about what could happen - mass suicide, worsening child abuse, a violent breakout - if the situation were allowed to drag on any longer.

The actions ultimately taken may well have hastened what they were intended to avoid - a mass loss of life. Some witnesses at the hearing made valid points about the special sensitivity needed to grasp the Davidians' world view and thus be able to negotiate in terms appreciable to them. Patience was wearing thin by April 19, 1993. The impulse among Americans to categorize the compound's occupants as ''wackos'' who couldn't be reasoned with had grown strong.

That impulse should always be guarded against. Violent action against people clearly primed for violence is likely to cause an explosion. The officials and agents involved felt compelled to move ahead with tanks and gas nonetheless.

In hindsight, it's easy to wonder whether the public good at stake - presumably, bringing to justice federal firearms violators - justified the risks.

A situation like Waco may never again arise. But if it does, there will be ample lessons to draw on. And the hearings, unsatisfying as they may have been to those hoping for conspiratorial revelations, should serve to make those lessons more available.

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