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COLUMN LEFT/ ALEXANDER COCKBURN : No Wimps, Just Janet Reno and the Dead : After two months, the Feds had to get tough--or did Clinton & Co. have to look macho?

April 20, 1993|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications.

The simplest question is the one to which the Feds give the least convincing answer: Was it really necessary to send a tank into the Branch Davidian compound northwest of Waco, Tex., setting in motion events that soon converted the place into a crematorium for at least 80 people, including more than 20 children?

In her press conference Monday, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno gave answers that were either incomprehensible or contradictory.

The hostage rescue squad, Reno explained, could not remain indefinitely. Leaving aside the fact that this suggests a parlous federal capability, why did the impending departure of the hostage rescue squad require the deployment of the tank, the breaching of the compound walls, the spraying of CS2 gas?

Both the attorney general and Bob Ricks, the FBI spokesman in Waco, said that the intention was to increase pressure Monday, and then increase pressure again Tuesday.

Short of dropping a bomb on the compound or bulldozing it flat, how much scope was there for further controlled escalation after bashing down compound walls and squirting in CS2 gas? Also, people living in the vicinity of the Branch Davidian compound have said that FBI agents told them that "it was going to end today."

Once they had rejected the idea of a prolonged stand-off and engendered the tank/gas attack, the FBI planners developed the comforting theory that mothers would seize their children and rush with them to safety. At least this is what Agent Ricks claimed in Waco.

But if the FBI psychologists were too dumb to figure it out, surely Reno, who says she reviewed the plan in minute detail, could have pointed out that in the final crisis, the religious zealots might more likely hasten themselves and their children toward the greater safety of heaven, a la Jonestown. As a prosecutor in Dade County, Fla., Reno took particular interest in cases of supposed "satanic abuse," so such distraught psychic terrain was no novelty to her.

It's always awe-inspiring to listen to officials confronted with the evidence of disaster explain solemnly that the plan was fine, although marred by unexpected and indeed tragic developments.

Back at the end of February, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms explained away the disastrous onset of the saga in Waco--four agents dead, plus an uncertain number of Branch Davidians--by saying that some "mole" had betrayed their attack plan. What betrayed the ATF was no mole but the bureau's indiscretion in its preparations for the all-guns-blazing raid in search of the illicit Branch Davidian arms cache.

So, both in its origin and its conclusion, the Branch Davidian crisis saw men, women and children die because the Feds couldn't sit still. The original assault wasn't necessary and neither was the concluding one.

Stand-offs grate on the enforcement psyche. The idea of doing nothing cataclysmic is rejected as somehow a surrender. Confronted with the entreaties of the commanders in the field, liberal overseers sign off on the blueprints for disaster.

Thus, Mayor Wilson Goode OKd the mad scheme that saw the deaths by fire of the MOVE family in Philadelphia and the incineration of an entire city block. And thus, Atty. Gen. Reno approved the Waco plan and got a further approving nod from President Clinton.

Part of the acquiescence of liberals to military solutions is the fear of being accused of wimping out in the business of bringing criminals to book. This may have been at the back of Janet Reno's mind and Bill Clinton's last weekend.

We live in the militarized police culture of SWAT teams, tactical squads, elite storm units, Delta teams and kindred commandos: Don't knock on the door to solve enforcement problems but break it down with a bulldozer. The President and his attorney general seem to have signed on to that culture with alacrity. From President Clinton, continued full funding for the War on Drugs; from Atty. Gen. Reno, a go-ahead for the FBI's catastrophic final solution. Bill and Janet should count the bodies outside Waco and think again.

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