Urging more action and less reasoning: Apocalypse now!

MIKE LITTWIN

April 23, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

Janet Reno insisted it wasn't D-Day Monday when the tanks crashed into the Waco compound and the gas poured in, just hours before the poor fools inside set off the apocalyptic firestorm foretold by David Koresh.

It was D-Day, of course. Even as the tanks moved, FBI agents on the scene were telling the cultists that this was the end of the siege. They didn't know how right they were.

Koresh saw only two choices -- forced surrender or suicide.

But why did he have to choose?

It's the question that, days later, remains unanswered. Did it have to happen then? And one other: Did it have to happen that way?

The questions came fast. Ted Koppel was grilling Janet Reno that same night. Second-guessing is, of course, what we do best. The media rushed into the blame game. The politicians -- how about the FBI-loving Republicans who suddenly turned on the bureau? -- followed soon after.

Reno was the first target.

Then Clinton got blamed for not backing Reno sufficiently.

The FBI was faulted for the fiery ending; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for the botched beginning. There was lots of blame to go around.

As it happens, though, most politicians are now courageously backing off. That's because, according to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, the American people overwhelmingly approved of the raid on the Waco compound.

It's in that same poll that the answers may lie to the timing question. In the aftermath of the raid, 57 percent said the FBI should have acted even sooner.

This might be as frightening as any aspect of the entire horrifying episode -- the drumbeat for action.

You heard it on the talk shows and in other corners. This had gone on long enough. Something had to be done. Let's do it now. Let's do it right now.

When the moment came to explain the timing of the raid, FBI Director William Sessions would say, in part, that the Branch Davidians had killed four federal agents and people wanted them brought to justice.

It was time.

As it turned out, it wasn't time. That's an easy second-guess, given the calamitous ending, although Sessions was having none of it. Asked if he would do anything differently, he said, "No."

A lesson here: Football coaches, generals and FBI directors never admit the possibility of a mistake.

We still await a good explanation for why the FBI chose limited force. There were several trotted out. One was that the children inside the compound -- children who were, in essence, hostages -- were being abused. Later, the FBI would say there was no direct evidence of abuse.

Another explanation was that the agents at the site were worn down by the 51-day siege and that there were no ready substitutes. In other words, we're being asked to believe that the entire U.S. government didn't have the resources to match those of the hunkered-down crazies inside the compound.

A more likely explanation was that the FBI had run out of ideas and had run out of patience. Koresh had held off the U.S. government long enough.

Well, how long is long enough? Why is there ever a long enough? Is it long enough when we get tired of a story, as many must have been, already looking to the next crisis? Is it long enough because when we can't think of anything else to do, action is the next logical step?

That's the phrase the FBI used. The tanks and the tear gas, one spokesman said, were the next logical step.

The idea, of course, was that tear gas would cause confusion and people would come running out of the compound. For some reason, suicide was ruled out as a likely scenario, even though for seven weeks all we'd heard about was suicide. Also, the FBI said it was counting on the "mothering instinct" to prevail and that the children would be saved. The FBI played by sane rules with insane people.

And so they brought what must have looked like the apocalypse to a man who preached apocalypse. The end was horrifyingly cruel.

I don't have a better plan to suggest. Nobody can be sure, even now, if waiting would have saved the lives of the children. Perhaps, with Koresh, it had to end badly, no matter what anyone did. We'll never know now.

What we know for sure is that the ending could not have been more tragic. And what I fear is that the call for action spoke louder than any call for reason.

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