Experts on cults question FBI strategy in Waco siege

April 21, 1993|By New York Times News Service

Law-enforcement agencies might have avoided an Armageddon in their 51-day standoff with the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, if they had focused their attention on the fact that they were dealing with a violent sect, experts on cults said in interviews yesterday.

Instead, the FBI and others involved in the ordeal approached it as if it were a hostage situation. By relying on basic principles of hostage negotiation, the agencies apparently ignored or minimized the factors that might have told them their approach was unlikely to work.

The very process that draws people into the web of a violent sect means an armed confrontation with the outside serves to solidify the bonds within the group, rather than dividing them, as is the case with common criminals, said psychologists who study such cults.

Many experts on cults who were interviewed yesterday said they and others they knew in the field had not been consulted during the siege. One expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had been consulted for his expertise on hostage negotiations, rather than for his expertise on cults.

Another expert, Dr. Margaret Singer, formerly of the University of California at Berkeley, said she was surprised that no one from any of the agencies involved called her "or any of the half-dozen other major authorities on cults."

Mike Korten, a spokesman for the FBI in Washington, said the agency's behavior science division has had extensive experience dealing with cults, declining to give the names of consultants.

The experts who were interviewed acknowledged that it was easy to second guess the FBI, and none could offer an alternative strategy that would not have risked bloodshed.

Even so, they also said that a violent confrontation with a group like that in Waco heightened the probability of loss of life because it fulfilled the besieged group's belief that evil forces were against them, and that their salvation was in dying in a violent Armageddon.

The emotional glue that binds members of a sect to a leader like David Koresh demands a constant excitement that can easily take a violent turn, said Dr. Chris Hatcher, a police psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco.

The crucial moment that heads a cult down the road to violence, he said, occurs when the cult leader proclaims that the group must protect itself against evil forces in the outside world, and develops an armed security squad.

That urge for violence is part of an addictive excitement in which the cult leader "puts tremendous energy into heightening the personal melodrama for each member," Dr. Hatcher said.

Dr. Marc Galanter of New York University Medical School has studied more than 2,000 cult members through interviews and questionnaires. He found that the pull of cult membership in general is that it provides a sense of excitement and belonging. "The people who are most likely to join a cult are distressed and lonely, and find relief and friendship in the group," he said.

Dr. Galanter found that even after a year or two in the cult, those who reported the greatest sense of belonging were also those who felt most suspicious of people outside the cult. "They're bonded by a shared paranoia of outsiders," he said.

"They have to rebuff any external reality that would undermine their beliefs. Then, if outsiders actually appear to threaten the group, it bonds them more closely and validates their view that it's better to die together than to submit to evil outside forces," Dr. Galanter said.

As Dr. Hatcher and others noted, the Waco operation went according to the basic principles of hostage -- not cult -- negotiation.

"The premise of hostage negotiation is that there is something to negotiate," said Dr. Richard Ofshe, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley. "Here there was nothing to negotiate -- everyone would be arrested if they left -- and no hostages."

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