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HELLFIRE : DID ANYONE INVOLVED IN THE WACO RAID THINK ABOUT WHAT MOTIVATED THE BRANCH DAVIDIANS? : THE ASHES OF WACO: An Investigation, By Dick J. Reavis (Simon & Schuster: $24; 320 pp.) : WHY WACO? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America, By James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher (University of California Press: $24.95; 252 pp.)

August 13, 1995|Michael D'Antonio | Author Michael D'Antonio has written extensively on religious movements in America. His next book, "Devouring the Young: Parents, Politics and the Decline of America's Children," is due in 1996 from Crown Publishing

Recent Congressional hearings on the Waco tragedy are supposed to help the nation understand what happened on the Texas plains in 1993, when about 80 people died during government raids on a heavily armed "cult compound." A 14-year-old girl's testimony of sexual abuse inside the compound explains, in part, the decision to arrest the people known as Branch Davidians and their leader, David Koresh. And the tales of incompetence and machismo told by some of the agents who participated in the raid illustrate the mistakes made by those who directed the two disastrous assaults.

Although this new information is helpful, it is also tainted by the forum from which it emerges. Republicans have made no secret of their desire to use the hearings to embarrass the Clinton Administration and humiliate Atty. Gen. Janet Reno. And Administration officials involved in the Waco controversy seem determined to justify their actions, even if it means obscuring contradictory evidence.

Fortunately, in the middle of Waco's revival as a political issue, two fresh books offer compelling revelations about what actually happened before, during and after the siege. These books--one a journalistic investigation, the other an academic study--explain how the federal government, the press and the public misunderstood Koresh and his followers. They also suggest that the tragedy might have been averted had authorities been calmer, smarter and more open-minded.

In "The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation," journalist Dick J. Reavis artfully reconstructs the founding of the Waco group as an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. He places the Branch Davidians in the American tradition of Bible-based, end-of-time movements, which have periodically arisen to announce the pending completion of apocalyptic prophecy. Reavis also describes the evolution of the Waco settlement--called Mount Carmel--along with the internal struggles for leadership that have marked its history.

The sect in Waco was just one of many radical or dissenting offshoots from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Like others, the Waco group had undergone years of turmoil, including a long-running battle over control of the Mount Carmel complex. Indeed, the Davidians were armed, at least in part, because they felt threatened by a competing--and particularly bizarre--prophet whom Koresh had succeeded after a gunfight at Mount Carmel.

Unlike many journalists, Reavis took pains to learn and understand the religious foundations of the Davidians. He sought the help of key Adventist institutions and current leaders of the church, cites the important works of Adventist pioneer Ellen White and shows how White and other Adventist prophets influenced Koresh. With his properly tuned ear, Reavis discovered that the Davidians were more devout and less menacing than their popular image. And he describes them as people who, though perhaps troubled, had each made a deliberate choice to live as they did. No one was forced into the crude, sometimes exhausting existence at Mount Carmel. Members came and left at will. It was their adherence to the sect, nothing more, that tied them to the place.

One of the most telling illustrations of the power of the Davidians' belief is offered in Reavis' account of a survivor's experience during the first of the two assaults on the compound, which many of us forget was her home. This attack was met by ferocious gunfire from inside the building. During the battle, she was certain that the Bible's prophecies were coming true, so she was not afraid. The Davidians believed that ultimately God was going to deliver them, rescuing them either bodily or in death. As one of the survivors explains: "To see what we believed was fulfillment of God's words, spoken thousands of years ago, was very exciting."

Though he is even-handed in his approach to the Davidians, Reavis does not ignore their delusions, paranoia and weaknesses. He describes Koresh as an abused child who "probably" took his revenge on his own children. Reavis details the rather bizarre sexual arrangements of the Davidians--Koresh considered nearly all women his "brides" and sexual property--and he shows the inconsistency of his beliefs and behaviors: Koresh was a messiah who sinned grandly, and he openly confessed those sins.

Reavis' portrait of the press and government authorities is no less revealing. By Reavis' account, credulous reporters, manipulated by federal officials, willingly depicted the compound's residents as a mindless cult of crazies. Little effort was made to present the Davidian's view in a way that took into account a religious orientation. And during the siege of Waco, little protest was voiced when court hearings were held in secret, documents were sealed and information was suppressed.

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