SACRED AND PROFANE
How not to negotiate with believers.
MARCH 31, 2014
The second, more serious problem with the way the F.B.I. viewed the Branch Davidians was the fact that the agents could not accept that beliefs such as these—as eccentric as they were—were matters of principle for those within Mount Carmel. During the siege, two of the leaders of the F.B.I. team referred to Koresh’s theology as “Bible-babble” and called him a “self-centered liar,” “coward,” “phony messiah,” “child molester,” “con-man,” “cheap thug who interprets the Bible through the barrel of a gun,” “delusional,” “egotistical,” and “fanatic.” For another essay, published in “Armageddon in Waco,” the religious scholar Nancy Ammerman interviewed many of the F.B.I. hostage negotiators involved, and she says that nearly all of them dismissed the religious beliefs of the Davidians: “For these men, David Koresh was a sociopath, and his followers were hostages. Religion was a convenient cover for Koresh’s desire to control his followers and monopolize all the rewards for himself.”
In the government’s eyes, the Branch Davidians were a threat. The bureau trained spotlights on the property and set up giant speakers that blasted noise day and night—the sound of “rabbits being killed, warped-up music, Nancy Sinatra singing ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking,’ Tibetan monks chanting, Christmas carols, telephones ringing, reveille.” Doyle writes, “I got to where I was only getting about an hour or two of sleep every twenty-four hours.”
Outside the Mount Carmel complex, the F.B.I. assembled what has been called probably the largest military force ever gathered against a civilian suspect in American history: ten Bradley tanks, two Abrams tanks, four combat-engineering vehicles, six hundred and sixty-eight agents in addition to six U.S. Customs officers, fifteen U.S. Army personnel, thirteen members of the Texas National Guard, thirty-one Texas Rangers, a hundred and thirty-one officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety, seventeen from the McLennan County sheriff’s office, and eighteen Waco police, for a total of eight hundred and ninety-nine people. Their task, as they saw it, was to peel away the pretense—Koresh’s posturing, his lies, his grandiosity—and compel him to take specific steps toward a resolution.
That is standard negotiation practice, which is based on the idea that, through sufficient patience and reason, a deranged husband or a cornered bank robber can be moved from emotionality to rationality. Negotiation is an exercise in pragmatism—in bargaining over a series of concrete objectives: If you give up one of your weapons, I will bring you water. When this approach failed, the F.B.I. threw up its hands. In bureau parlance, the situation at Mount Carmel became “non-negotiable.” What more could the bureau have done? “I guess we could have fenced it off and called it a federal prison,” Bob Ricks, one of the lead F.B.I. agents during the siege, said last year in an interview
But, as the conflict-studies scholar Jayne Docherty argues, the F.B.I.’s approach was doomed from the outset. In “Learning Lessons from Waco”—one of the very best of the Mount Carmel retrospectives—Docherty points out that the techniques that work on bank robbers don’t work on committed believers. There was no pragmatism hidden below a layer of posturing, lies, and grandiosity. Docherty uses Max Weber’s typology to describe the Davidians. They were “value-rational”—that is to say, their rationality was organized around values, not goals. A value-rational person would accept his fourteen-year-old daughter’s polygamous marriage, if he was convinced that it was in fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Because the F.B.I. could not take the faith of the Branch Davidians seriously, it had no meaningful way to communicate with them:
F.B.I.: What I’m saying is that if you could make an agreement with your people that they’re walking out of there and you could—
Koresh: I am not going to tell them what to do. I never have and never will. I show them out of a book what God teaches. Then it’s for them to decide.
F.B.I.: David, these kids need their parents, and we want everybody to be safe. How about the women? Can—will you let them come out of there? . . .
Koresh: Yeah, but the thing of it is that if they wanted to, they, they could.
F.B.I.: Well, I, I think they feel like they can’t because you don’t want them to.
Koresh: No, no, no, no. Let’s stop that now.
To the F.B.I. agent, Mount Carmel was a hostage situation, and the purpose of the “negotiation” was to get the man behind the barricade to release some of his captives. But Koresh saw his followers as his students. They were there of their own free will, to learn the prophecies of Revelation. How could he release people whom he was not holding in the first place?
Read the entire story