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FBI misfires in martyrdom milieu.

I have been thinking a lot about the incineration of the Branch Davidian group in Waco. Why did the carefully laid plans of the FBI, supposedly executed after much consultation, go completely wrong? Why didn't they take seriously the possibility of suicide? Why did they entertain.the appealing fantasy of "maternal instinct" suddenly rising to the fore, causing mothers to break and run with their children?

Because most of the children apparently were fathered by David Koresh, who not only claimed sexual rights over all female members of this group but was believed to be endowing his children with messianic "seed," did it not occur to the FBI that one might not have had there the expected work of maternal instinct?

It seems the FBI was operating under a false premise that biased all its other calculations. That false premise was that it was dealing with a criminal who was fundamentally a "wimp" - i.e., who wouldn't risk his own death - and with other people who were "hostages." What they didn't take seriously is that they were dealing with believers, a group deeply bonded by a common religious vision.

That vision was apocalyptic. They are the chosen ones of God living in the "end times." Their leader is the Messiah and so can be utterly trusted. But they can expect total hostility from their adversaries, for they represent the adversary, the devil. Catastrophe is to be expected, but they will surmount it, transformed even in death to a new form of life in which they will return as redemptive agents. People with such a worldview can be expected to behave very differently under fire than that assumed by the FBI.

I am skeptical of FBI claims that members of the sect set the fire and the quick assertions that some sect members were shot to prevent them from fleeing (a few now appear to have been shot, but all members of the group were trained to shoot themselves in a crisis). The FBI has a big need to make their scenario - that most of the people would try to flee when faced with suffocating tear gas - appear plausible.

Those who did escape claim that the fire was not set by members of their group, but rather that the rams that smashed through the walls knocked over kerosene lamps and ignited bales of hay piled against the walls, then spread to other flammables, propane and explosives. Sect members also may have spread it, once it was started. Blame for the fire may turn out to be complex, but the FBI is seeking to avoid blame for accidentally starting it. They were not prepared for the possibility of a fire.

In any case, however the fire actually started, it quickly became inescapable, racing through flimsy wooden buildings filled with hay, propane, kerosene and explosives. Though some members escaped and perhaps a few more tried, I suggest that, for most of this community of believers, the flames came as a confirmation of an expected belief: We will die by fire, but we will be transformed and return again." The name for such a concept of death is not suicide but martyrdom.

For Catholics, used to long deliberations about whether a person who died was truly saintly and therefore deserves the title of "martyr," this assertion may come as a surprise. We are cboosy about whom we call martyrs (or, rather, we are strategic about the politics of martyrdom). So far the Vatican has rejected such a title for Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, despite his high credentials for it, largely because they don't like his politics.

But one doesn't have to like the politics or even the theology of someone to understand that, in their own eyes, they are able to face death unflinchingly because they will be martyrs, transformed thereby into redeemed redeemers. Those who escaped claimed the women continued calmly about their household duties when the battering rams started to pour tear gas into the building. When they could no longer continue, they gathered the children around them and read the Bible. Perhaps the chorus rose as the flames swept across the room: "Even though we die, yet shall we live."

I don't much like apocalyptists, especially those willing to give infallible authority to a messianic leader and interpreter of the Bible whose behavior is hardly exemplary. But apocalypticism and the desire for infallible certainty vested in a book and a leader is deep in Christianity. Americans have long been attracted to such movements The Branch Davidians arose from Seventh Day Adventism, which was itself the product of widespread apocalyptic expectation in the United States in the 1840s.

As the year 2000 approaches and deep anxieties about the future of the world escalate, we are going to have to deal with many more such groups. We will have to learn to coax them from their fortresses and back into the larger society with greater subtlety than that displayed by the FBI in Waco.

There is an Asian story about a contest between the wind and the sun as to who could make a man take off his coat. The wind said: "I am much stronger than you. I can do it." And he blew and he blew, but the harder he blew, the more the man wrapped his coat around him. Finally, he admitted he had failed. The sun then began to shine gently. The man loosened his coat, then unbuttoned it, and finally took it off.

Could his have, applied to Waco? If the wind had been the FBI, he would never have admitted that his strategy failed. He would have blown ever harder until he blew the man to bits. What could have been the sun's strategy in that case? Probably not to create a grandstand siege in the first place; to wait quietly until they could apprehend the leaders as they came out for normal needs.

SWAT teams were not trained for nonviolent tactics. The FBI agents are apocalyptists, too. They want to exercise decisive force against "evil." However, they faced a group of people prepared to die rather than to surrender to what they saw as "evil." Thus, catastrophe was predictable. In the lingo of the Vietnam War, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." Can we learn another way before we facilitate more doomsday self-fulfilling prophecies?

Rosemary Radford Ruether teaches theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.
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Title Annotation:Branch Davidian fire
Author:Ruether, Rosemary Radford
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:May 7, 1993
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