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An Unknowable 'Right Answer' : Could officials have averted the Waco tragedy? . . . Question is likely to remain open forever

April 30, 1993

"Nobody will ever know what the right answer was" for dealing with the armed Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno told the House Judiciary Committee this week, and that refreshingly candid assessment seems unlikely to be altered by whatever new information the continuing investigations into this tragic event might yet reveal.

The 51-day siege of the cult's compound and its fiery conclusion inevitably invite speculative second-guessing and somber reappraisals. Certain tactics of federal officials, both from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and from the FBI, definitely demand fuller explanation. And no outcome that ends in the death of children can be considered even remotely successful, whoever is to blame. But definitive answers probably perished along with the cult's members, most especially the messianic leader David Koresh.

The motivations of cult members who chose, or were forced, to die in the consuming fire will of course be guessed at--endlessly. But those motivations can never be fully grasped, and after-the-fact efforts to get into the minds of the cultists can at best produce only partial and tenuous insights. The scores of adults who made themselves subservient to Koresh might have had certain quirks and needs in common, but each of them was also unique and complex and driven into the cult by his or her own special demons. Cultists, by definition, submerge their individuality into the group, yet each becomes a member of the group very much for individual reasons.

While a number of questions remain about federal decision-making, any effort to shift basic responsibility from the Koresh cult to the government is simply ridiculous and must be rejected. The arsenal amassed by the Branch Davidians made the cult a potential threat to public safety and legally and morally justified the move against it. As a consequence of what followed, dozens of innocent children died, along with scores of adult cultists. This was not, as the grandstanding Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) alleged, a "disgrace to law enforcement." It was an unwanted tragedy, but again, responsibility for the deaths of those children and for the wretched lives they had been forced to lead falls fully on those who brought them within the cult. The greatest pity in all this is that there wasn't some way for government to have intervened--long before the siege--to save these young victims from the horrifying fate that the twisted allegiances of their elders dragged them to.

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