Bad Beginning, Worse Ending

April 20, 1993

"It's a bad ending, and one of the ends we feared from the beginning," said a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms of yesterday's tragic result at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco. This terrible story started badly. Four BATF agents and two members of the cult were killed in the initial assault on the compound in February. Yesterday's fatalities dwarf that toll.

Were yesterday's fatalities unavoidable? That is a question that will bedevil this nation in the weeks ahead. An outcome of this sort inevitably brings demands to find out if responsible authorities blundered. Given the complicated mixture of conflicting personal and bureaucratic and governmental responsibilities and expectations involved, the post mortem may not be either polite or pretty.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Robert Ricks is no doubt correct in his praise of his agents who mounted the assault. Attorney General Janet Reno, who took complete responsibility for the order to execute the assault, seconded him.

Those agents displayed bravery and professionalism. Also "remarkable restraint," in Ms. Reno's phrase. But decision-making at the scene and in Washington may or may not escape criticism and blame. Mr. Ricks' and Ms. Reno's assessments that the plan of assault was "careful and humane" will be challenged. Some observers immediately questioned the fact that there was no firefighting equipment on the scene when the assault began.

It would be reassuring, after all the re-thinking, if the decisions by federal agencies are seen to have been justified -- that the tragedy could not have been avoided, that all other possibilities of action offered no expectation of a better outcome. We hope the final assault was to no degree based on frustration, loss of patience or other unworthy rationale. (Mr. Ricks denied impatience was a factor.)

It is bad enough for the national government to have this outcome on its hands without having it also on its conscience.

There is still not enough known for any fair-minded person to come to a definite conclusion about the events outside Waco yesterday and the days leading up to the first assault and the long siege after. Appropriate review by U.S. and Texas oversight agencies clearly is indicated.

Most Americans are uncomfortable but can co-exist with most cults. But the Branch Davidians are not like most cults, and the David Koreshes of the world are a rarity. Most religious cults do not stockpile weapons, menace their neighbors and threaten mass child suicide/murder. The question is how to deal with them. While federal authorities believe they did the right thing, the death toll in the bad beginning and worse ending of this tragedy should impel a search for other strategies when groups that do not conform to the norm decide to confront society in unacceptable ways.

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