Children Of The Apocalypse

In the end, not many cared much about what happened to David Koresh or those adult devotees who shared his fiery apocalypse. The cry that welled up in the nation's throat, from the president, from the FBI, was this: pity the innocent children! Altogether, at least 17 of them presumably perished with their parents. Seven had been sired by Koresh, the failed messiah. They were to be the firstborn of a new Davidic line, heirs of his polygamous kingdom. An additional 21 children left the compound during the 51-day siege; most are now orphans.

How could mothers permit their children to die? Did Koresh envision the death of these innocents? Or did he, as some FBI officials believe, merely use them as pawns in his negotiations? To some experts on the family, the parents in Koresh's cult were unusual in only one respect: they did not accept the norms of postmodern child rearing, which prizes the rights, autonomy and personality development of children. But, says Edward Shorter, a University of Toronto specialist in the history of the family, they "were typical of Bible-belt parents" whose equally valid child-rearing practices-spare the rod, spoil the child--continue a tradition that dates to the Puritans. Such parents, he observes, feel "a responsibility to guarantee eternal life for their children" and a mandate "to keep them from the hands of Satan."

Like other cults, the Branch Davidians saw themselves as family. Adult members deified Koresh as God's prophet, subsumed their lives to his vision of immortality and-from a psychoanalytical perspective-idealized him as their own omnipotent parent. Dr. Jerry Weiner, a professor of psychiatry at George Washington University, finds it implausible to suppose, as the FBI apparently did, that the maternal instincts of cult members "would put the safety of their children above loyalty to their leader. The two were seen as synonymous. We've had this with Eastern cults and with Jim Jones."

Jim Jones was clear about the children under his sway. During the Jonestown massacre in 1978, he reportedly insisted, "We must take care of the babies first" with a dose of poisoned punch. There is as yet, however, no hard evidence that the Branch Davidians contemplated mass suicide. The more likely interpretation, says Douglas Besharov, a specialist in family issues at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., is that they wanted their children to share Koresh's fate "because God commanded it or because this was the way to salvation." The difference is between taking one's own life and standing selflessly by one's spiritual leader. The result is the same.

Koresh was never clear about the children in his midst. In March, according to the FBI, he said, "Children are like hostages because they're too young to make decisions." Koresh's remark could mean either that he saw them literally as hostages or that he felt paternally responsible for them as religious patriarch of the clan. "We've become so secular in our thinking," says Besharov, "that we forget that some people, however much they pervert religion, truly believe."

Indeed, from the Jewish defenders at Masada, who executed their wives and children rather than leave them hostage to the Romans, through the early Christian martyrs down to the 16th-century wars of religion, faith has inspired many believers to die rather than capitulate to the agents of the secular law. Had Koresh believed in reincarnation he might well have imagined himself to be John of Leiden, a crazed Anabaptist who, at 25, proclaimed himself "King of Zion" and transformed the German town of Munster into a communal theocracy in 1534. Much like Koresh, John took multiple wives in the hope of establishing a new race of "Israelites," then fell after a siege. His captors dismembered him with redhot pincers.

But Koresh confused his own besiegers by seeming quite normal-if calculating-at times. His devotion to rock music and to his Camaro suggested that he was not wholly preoccupied with living out a personal Armageddon. Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton of the City University of New York sees two "relatively autonomous selves" in Koresh: the "earthbound" self who sent out word that he wanted to negotiate a book contract, and a stronger, apocalyptic self "consumed by Armageddon and his role in it." The FBI's siege, Lifton believes, "enabled Koresh to confirm and intensify his most extreme fantasies of final battle-and assume martyrdom and immortality." It was, it seems, also a collective consummation, one visited upon the guilty and the innocent, the mature and those too young to object.