WACO: Tragedy by the Branch Davidians and the FBI’s Misunderstanding of religious value.

Explosion at Branch Davidian Compound

On February 28, 1993, Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) raided the Branch Davidian cult compound in Waco, Texas, prompting a gun battle in which four agents and six cult members are killed. The federal agents were attempting to arrest the leader of the Branch Davidians, David Koresh, on information that the religious sect was stockpiling weapons. A nearly two-month standoff ensued after the unsuccessful raid. Despite protracted talks with Koresh, FBI negotiators failed to convince him to come out of the compound or release his followers, though he insisted they were not planning on a mass suicide.  In April 19 1993, seventy-five (75) members of the Branch Davidians including their messianic leader, David Koresh, perished in the blaze that destroyed their compound after 51-days of the siege by federal agents.


I do not want to go deep into how David Koresh lived as a polygamist among his Branch Davidian followers, but I want to point out mistakes made by the federal agents and lessons can be learned from when dealing with believers to avoid a mass destruction.  In fact, the Branch Davidians, the FBI and the ATF had other options for a peaceful way out to get David Koresh to surrender to the authorities and save every life that was in that compound. Branch Davidians were a community immersed in the world of the Old Testament prophets, and their leader David Koresh was their spiritual leader. Additionally, Koresh was fully understood his fundamental constitutional rights of “Freedom of Religion” and The Fourth Amendment, protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” which means he did recognize the legitimacy of the government as his “own” government. Koresh mentioned on the tape when negotiating with the FBI that their rights have been “infringed” by the government -“Your generals violated our constitutional rights.” After the ATF assault to the compound, Koresh had found out that The ATF overreached the scope of their authority (jurisdiction) and the warrant fell far short of proper constitutional standards.  Since Koresh knew his constitutional rights, there was still a chance for him to surrender to the authorities if agents would have shown an awareness and respect to his belief. This would have enhanced the negotiation into peaceful conclusion. There was a clear hope that Koresh would release more children and adults from his captive with physically in good condition as he demonstrated the earlier stage of the negotiation with the FBI. Secondly, Koresh demonstrated another stunning trust-building with the authorities by meeting the Sheriff in his compound. He did these to build a trust with the FBI negotiators, but the FBI never attempted to demonstrate such trust with Koresh. This indicated that Koresh was sincere, and that there was no need for violence. But the FBI treated the situation as an act of hostage, while those children and adults were voluntarily with Koresh.

From my analysis of this case, Koresh never wanted or interested to happen what have finally had happen to the compound.  His main goal was a publicity to introduce his millennial Christian beliefs’ scripture and ideology to the world in regards to gain more followers and send message to his opposite Christians that denounced his prophecy. For example, he demanded an airtime to broadcast his message. The purpose of the airtime was to introduce the world the Revelation of the “Seven Seals” as he clearly noted in the letter to his lawyer – he wrote “Many scholars and religious leaders will wish to have copies for examination” and show a “fault line” ran by the authorities at his compound as an alien act to the Davidians’ ethos. Nonetheless, the Tactical Division was absolutely impatient to the process and disregarded what he implied to let theologians involve the process. Another factor from the FBI’s side is that the letters sent by Koresh was evaluated by psychologists and psychiatrists to find out if any possible suicide Koresh may commit; while ignored the religious prospective that Koresh held that was mainly supposed to be analyzed.  The letters contained biblical language that would have been properly evaluated by only theologians.

During the negotiation, the negotiators accused Koresh that he is a “child molester and a murderer”, which should not arouse such allegation during that critical moment with the believers because believers recognize the scriptural-based age of adulthood, not the legal interpretations. Secondly, FBI tactical division demonstrated military-style threat and bombardment with loud music and other unpleasant noises against the Davidians in the middle of the negotiation while Koresh posed no immediate danger to anyone in and off of his property.  Additionally, shutting off electricity, and removing automobiles from the compound after several people was released from the compound. One of the FBI’s negotiators predicted a defensive from the Davidians in the presence of the threat by the FBI tactical division’s ancillary actions.  After all these pressures from the FBI, Koresh raged a psychological warfare with the authorities by sending a videos shows him and the children in a good physical condition and how they love him and the way he treats them. This was a message to the FBI to halt the physical threat they pose to the group and the innocent children. Unfortunately, his message was ignored.

The ungrounded escalation to storm the Davidians’ property resulted by the negotiators’ lack of knowledge to a sacred site and biblical scripture and its values, and a perception of that Koresh was a “psychopath.” Understanding and respecting sacred values is a key for negotiating with believers because sacred values is a principal motivation to the believers’ behavior, and people who hold sacred values are rarely will give-up  their values for economic trade-off and/or  physical pressure from people that they perceive as “nonbelievers.”  For instance, Professor Scott Atran conducted an experimental survey to settlers and leaders involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He found that most of the participants responded negatively if the proposed solution was an economic trade-off of some sort, responded extremely negatively if offered a trade-off along with some substantial material incentive, and responded more positively to a trade-off that also involved a symbolic concession. When negotiating with such groups, Branch Davidians and terrorists like suicide bombers that live within a rigid framework of sacred values because they are willing to make extreme sacrifices with little or no guarantee their actions will result in success, material or otherwise (Negotiation Journal, 2008).

The Branch Davidians’ compound is a sacred site until today according to the Koreshi followers. And the FBI should have recognized the boundary, unique, cohesive, and the sacred values of this property, not to violate it. Additionally, the authorities should have sustained their patient for the sake of the negotiation to save innocent lives in the compound.  Since Koresh claimed as a “prophet” of the Davidians, and his followers dominated by his scriptural words, the FBI negotiators should have bring in the negotiation religious leaders and scholars in the process so that these people should have used and expressed their biblical text’s knowledge and beliefs to develop a greater commonality of outlook on the issue with Koresh. Like this scenario, Professor Atran recommends a cautious and consistent apology to the believers’ core values while simultaneously demonstrating sensitivity to the values of the issue is negotiating (Negotiation Journal, 2008).

The physical threat by the FBI’s tactical division, Koresh perceived that FBI negotiators cannot be neutral to the process so that Koresh indirectly hinted the process to be involved religious leaders and scholars in the letter he asked to be delivered to his lawyer. Koresh wrote to the FBI “As soon as I can see that people like Jim Tabor and Phil Arnold have a copy, I will come out and then you can do your thing with this beast.” Tabor and Phil Arnold are Theologians that he hinted to be involved in regard of the sacred values’ framework.  Such involvement would have been helpful in bringing peaceful resolution for the issue.

Finally, another conflict management failure by the FBI is when they decided to storm the building, they had no effective plan for any fire that was likely to spread quickly in the brisk warm wind and used tanks to alter the normal escape routes from the house and pumped in a gas that bewildered people from route for escape.

The exclusive of the religious actors in this situation from the negotiation is what escalated physical pressure on Koresh that resulted the tragedy of law enforcement history. When negotiating with believers it is an essential to consider sacred values. Professor Atran demonstrated an example from his Israel-Palestine conflict experiment- that both Jews and Palestinians neither liked to compromise for what they believe and claim to each other.  Palestinian would take a suicide bombs to rather than recognize Israel presence in the region. On the other hand, Jews would take military action rather than taking a hundreds thousand dollars each family for relocation from the Gaza (Negotiation Journal, 2008). This is most evident for the most tenacious conflicts that are grounded in religious. The massive raid by the FBI at Branch Davidians’ compound was unnecessary and unwarranted while there is an alternatives for maintaining a peaceful solution.

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