Hard Lessons In The Ashes

Armed with machine guns, grenades and land mines, members of a violent white-supremacist group known as the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord hunkered down on a fortified commune in the Ozarks and defied the authorities to come and get them. The commune, whose inhabitants included dozens of women and children, was cordoned off by a massive federal task force drawn from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team. The siege turned into a four-day standoff while FBI negotiators tried to talk the cultists into giving up. "We steered them away from their vision of a violent ending," one agent said. "We argued that their picture of the coming Apocalypse was wrong."

Amazingly enough, this line of persuasion worked and no one was harmed-but that was 1985, when the millennium was still 15 years away. Now, in the aftermath of last week's tragedy in Waco, cult experts and law-enforcement officials alike are rethinking their view of the myriad political and religious extremists who, all across the country, dabble in the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Revelation. The old tactics-hit 'em with a massive display of force, add intense psychological pressure, then talk 'em out-have failed spectacularly and nearly 90 people are believed dead. Are there other potentially dangerous cults out there? "Certainly," says Webb Hubbell, who as the No. 2 to Attorney General Janet Reno was directly involved in the FBI's decision to send in the tanks. The question now, Hubbell says, is, "How can we handle them without loss of life?"

One answer, according to Hubbell, could be new technology-something sneaky, like a harmless knockout gas that would render defiant cultists helpless in any showdown with the law. But the problem is more complicated than that. For one thing, the beliefs and practices of all religious groups, fringe or otherwise, are constitutionally protected: there is no law against preaching about the Apocalypse. "With the end of the millennium coming, we'll hear more death-and-doomsday talk," predicts Hal Mansfield, a Colorado-based expert on alternative religions. For another, even zealots have the right to own and carry guns. "Nothing in this country says you can't own 100 rifles and a million rounds of ammunition," says Clinton Van Zandt, the FBI's chief negotiator in Waco.

So the real problem is understanding the difference between believers who merely hold apocalyptic views and those, like David Koresh, who are potentially dangerous. Take the Church Universal and Triumphant as an example. The Church Universal is a millennial group that has stirred up controversy in Paradise Valley, Mont. It attracted scores of followers to its 28,000-acre ranch, and it alarmed many local residents by building an elaborate network of bomb shelters against the nuclear Armageddon that its leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet, predicts. Prophet's husband has been convicted of conspiracy to buy guns under an assumed name, which suggests that the church is preparing for war with somebody. But Prophet said recently that she has preached against violence for years and that Koresh's confrontation with the FBI "is absolutely wrong." She also said she would have told Koresh to "put [down] your arms and trust the justice system."

The cults to worry about, according to Rick Ross, an expert who advised the FBI during the confrontation in Waco, can be identified by the character of their leadership. The Branch Davidians, he says, were "totally dependent" on Koresh, who, like Jim Jones in Guyana, systematically brainwashed his followers and cut them off psychologically from the outside world. That's a danger signal in itself-a clear sign that in any confrontation with the law, the group will resist all forms of psychological pressure and close ranks around its leader. And if the group sees government as corrupt, as many religious extremists do, pressure tactics of the sort the FBI used in Waco are a big mistake. "If you want to make them fanatical, do just what the FBI did," says James Tabor, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

Surrounded by loudspeakers blaring rock music and the recorded screams of dying rabbits, Koresh's followers may well have seen the FBI's psychological warfare as the coming of the Antichrist-something prophesied in Scripture, says Phillip Arnold, a director of a Houston religious think tank. Another expert, Robert Fuller of Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., said the Davidians could have succumbed to what he called the "Masada complex," after the legendary mass suicide of Jewish dissidents who were besieged by the Romans in A.D. 72. "When FBI agents said they had concluded that mass suicide was not a big possibility, we all said 'bulls-t' under our breaths," Mansfield says. "You're not dealing with a criminal mind-set but an apocalyptic mind-set." The difference is enormous and the consequences were tragic-and unless the Feds learn to deal astutely and carefully with religious cults, it is a tragedy that could occur again.