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As millions cheer.

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 at least seventy cult members met their fiery death. It was then that national public-opinion polls began reporting that an overwhelming majority of the American people found no fault with the way law-enforcement authorities had brought the standoff to a head.

Such enthusiasm for an exercise that was botched from the beginning, that ended in a horrible blood-bath, and the continues to pose agonizing questions, connotes one thing that ought to dismay all of us: We have allowed our national zeal for "law and order" to carry us beyond all bounds of reason. We're at the point where even the most brutal excess by "peace officers" sets millions to cheering.

When the FBI, after a fifty-one-day siege, used tanks borrowed from the armed forces to smash through walls at he Davidian compound and lob in tear gas canisters, it was still not clear how the confrontation, with its attendant loss of life, had begun on February 28.

Why was the initial assault mounted 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. Koresh had bought his weapons openly and had threatened no one with them.

So what was ATF doing here in the first place?

We were also old that there was "rumors" or "reports" of possible child abuse within the compound. None of those claims has been substantiated - but if it had been, since when does ATF deal with child abuse? This much we know: The children who died because of the 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 siege that followed, Federal spokesmen repeatedly stressed that they would patiently negotiate, that they would wait out the cultists, that they needed to precipitate no dangerous action that might lead to loss of human life. Why, then, did they blast noise at the beleaguered cultists and subject them to every kind of provocation? And why did they ultimately mount their attack? They called it "the next logical step."

We were told that FBI agents were exhausted and needed to act and go home - as if the vast machinery of U.S. law enforcement had no reserves, no back-ups, no alternative forces to draw on. And 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 these days? A front-page headline in The Washington Post of March 9 must have escaped the notice of the FBI and its experts. It read, Cult Leader Wants to Die a Martyr in |All-Out Firefight,' and the story under that head quoted Koresh as telling Federal agents that he hoped the Government would attack so that he could die like a martyr. The Branch Davidians did, after all, call their compound Ranch Apocalypse.

Why was the Government so eager to oblige them?

The cause of 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 Koresh had called for but 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 were targeted for extinction because their 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 - to say the least - were committed. When millions of our fellow citizens are ready to give that kind of blank check to police authorities, democracy is in acute peril.
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Title Annotation:government routs Branch Davidian compound
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:792
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