Branch Davidians: Thinking About the Followers Acting Within a Localized Moral Universe

June 06, 1993|By FRED E. KATZ

We have heard of the apparent mass suicides of members of the Branch Davidian religious cult. It was an act that appeared strikingly similar to the mass suicides by the cult at Jonestown, where almost 1,000 persons killed themselves. This time, in Waco, the gruesome total was only about 86. Even this number is surely too large. We grieve over these deaths. We decry and denounce the malevolence of the cult leaders and the ways in which they victimize a group of earnest, innocent and well-intentioned followers.

The followers deserve our compassion. They are truly victims of leaders who take advantage of their vulnerability -- which the leaders deliberately create and then exploit. And yet if we are going to understand how the horrors could have happened, we need to go beyond concentrating on the malevolence of the cult leader. It may seem harsh, but we need to pay attention to the independent contribution to the horrors by the followers.

In both Jonestown and Waco, there had evolved a highly localized moral universe. Here some of the outside world's moral standards, including contacts and obligations to friends and loved ones on the outside, were treated as totally irrelevant. They obeyed a leader unto death. And they acted as a unified community, going to their death with apparent willingness, and possibly even with joy.

In both Jonestown and Waco, the outside world's pressures served only to heighten the resolve of these communities -- from their leader down to the lowliest follower -- to assert their uniquely separate character and identity. This culminated in an action which the outside world found totally abhorrent but which, to those on the inside, may have seemed as the ultimate sacrifice in fulfillment of a religious dream of salvation.

Most analysts overemphasize the role of the leaders, James Jones and David Koresh. Yes, these leaders had immense influence on their followers. Yes, these leaders may have been self-intoxicated scoundrels, who had little regard for the well-being of their members. But they had followers who whole-heartedly embraced the cause which the leader presented to them. And this made a world of difference.

These followers celebrated that cause to the extent of giving up most of the moral commitments they had previously embraced -- including marital vows and responsibilities to their children. They went so far as to donate their very lives, openly and willingly.

The followers played an enormous part. Let us be clear, the difference between a leader who has people willing to die on his behalf and a "leader" who is committed to a mental hospital is that the one has followers and the other does not. The followers make or break the system.

The conventional wisdom is that the cult leader's followers are brainwashed zombies, who follow their leader unthinkingly and mechanically. They no longer have any will of their own. They have no freedom whatsoever.

All this is a gross distortion. Ask a cult member -- or a member of any ultra-orthodox religion -- whether, as a member, one is free, whether one has choices. The answer of the cult member is that one feels exceedingly free, making choices all the time, exceedingly fulfilled, leading a creative and bountiful life through one's membership. Many a cult member believes that salvation is directly at hand, not something in the distant future, in another life. One can, through one's own efforts centered on the cult group's norms -- as spelled out by the leader -- move the process of salvation along to its final grand conclusion, and this can be done here and now. The leader is seen as the supreme catalyst for one's personal salvation. But one's salvation is not a bland, zombie matter. It is an exciting and holy venture. One participates actively, doing so in unison with the cult group.

In the social sciences there has long been awareness that we conduct much of our life under the influence of those who are in our close, immediate circles. We are influenced by immediate friends and neighbors in the most varied ways -- when it comes to voting, to buying consumer goods, to evaluating ourselves. But this insight has not been fully explored when it comes to human horrors. At Jonestown and at Waco we saw people cheerfully go to their death in unison with their immediate circle of fellow-believers. We see a new, local system of morality that LTC seems totally alien to the morality of the outside world.

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