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Title Branch Davidians - Waco: Experts Fault Federal Tactics

Branch Davidians - Waco: Experts Fault Federal Tactics April 19th, 2006 - The Globe, Apr. 20 1993 by Judith Gaines

The apparent mass deaths in Waco might have been prevented if FBI agents had better understood behavior patterns common to cultists, several specialists on cult behavior said yesterday. If, as the FBI said, the Branch Davidians torched their compound in Waco, Texas, themselves, apparently committing mass suicide in a fiery Armageddon, they were following behavior patterns common to cultists, the specialists said. "The whole FBI mentality was wrong, wrong, wrong," said Steven Hassan, of Somerville, a former leader of the Unification Church and author of the book 'Combating Cult Mind Control.' "They treated the Branch Davidians like criminals, not cult members."

Although FBI director William Sessions said last night that his agency had consulted with psychologists, psycholinguists and psychiatrists on the Waco situation, Hassan said he had offered his services to the FBI but had been 'stonewalled.' "The group's theology ' that the end of the world was near' fed right into this outcome," said Marcia Rudin, director of the International Cult Education Program in the American Family Foundation. Rudin also said members of her group had also attempted to assist the FBI. But she said the primary blame for the tragedy should rest with David Koresh, who manipulated and abused his followers. What happened yesterday morning "is not surprising," said Jack Levin, a sociologist at Northeastern University. By isolating cultists from outside communication, FBI agents "put the cult members at the mercy of one particular charismatic leader" David Koresh.

So the resolution of the standoff in Waco depended not so much on what outside influences did as on what the leader had in mind. And that, Levin and others said, was a fatal, if common, mistake. The Branch Davidians had become so isolated, they 'might as well have been in the jungles of Guyana is 1978,' when 914 followers of Rev. Jim Jones obeyed his order to join him in death by drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide, Levin said. As in the Jonestown episode, he noted, cultists were completely cut off from outside sources of guidance and support who could have questioned Koresh's wisdom. And the indications were that Koresh, like Jones, "felt hopeless about life on earth and decided to take his followers with him to reunite for a better life in the hereafter," Levin said. But the mass deaths could have been avoided if FBI agents had used tactics encouraging cult members to question Koresh's leadership, said Hassan, a licensed mental health counselor who for 17 years has been advising cultists about how to reevaluate their involvement in such groups.

"By shining bright lights, playing loud music, trying to deprive them of sleep and similar strategies, authorities merely 'reinforced the Davidians' views of an evil, Satanic outside world that was torturing them," he said. "They should have brought picnic baskets with fried chicken and soda pop and played Koresh's favorite music, instead of treating them like trapped rats." Furthermore, if Koresh ordered his followers to set fire to the compound where they had been under seige for the last 51 days, as the FBI contends, this would have been in keeping with his continual warnings about the approach of the sect's final days, as well as its history, several specialists said. A cult, by definition, is a group lead by a charismatic leader who has an unusual degree of control over its members' behavior. They can be any size and organized around any ideology, but they typically share an "us against them" mentality, a belief that "the end justifies the means, and a position of total submission to the leader," Rudin said. Furthermore, added Hassan, cultists frequently believe "their lives will fall apart if they leave the group." Federal authorities should have countered this belief by broadcasting voices of Davidian relatives and friends "reminding them of pleasant memories in days before they joined the cult" or former cultists "discussing what they're doing now, in the world outside," Hassan said. In other words, those specialists said, the cultists needed to know there was an attractive world beyond the compound, a positive alternative to Koresh.