By Parson Turnbull
There’s been a lot of discussion among members of the Armed Intelligentsia lately about how Connecticut’s finest might proceed if they decide to confiscate unregistered guns from the state’s 100,000 or more newly-minted felons. The level of concern is evidenced by daily long comment threads, speculative posts by people who are not members of law enforcement, and even a couple of contributed opinions from the LEO community. The rational consensus seems to be that if the gun-grab order were given, cops would pinch a registration scofflaw at the grocery store, at work, on the road…anyplace other than his or her home where a Ruby Ridge-style tragedy might ensue. Here I propose the alternative–that LEOs might not in fact be that rational if and when the time comes . . .
You may have read or at least heard about Malcolm Gladwell’s lookback at Waco in the New Yorker last week. It’s part book review (siege survivor Clive Doyle’s memoir has just been published), part interview and part history. Gladwell reprises what most people now know–that the Branch Davidians weren’t violent and almost certainly weren’t involved in the illegal gun trade or any other criminal enterprise. He also provides a brief and interesting history of the group, which was founded some 80 years before David Koresh came along.
Gladwell’s main theme, though, is the thought process and mentality of the law enforcement officials toward the end of the two-month siege. And that should give us all pause.
The F.B.I., to justify its decision to bring about a sudden and violent end to the siege, believed that the Branch Davidians were dangerously in the thrall of Koresh; it feared a catastrophic act like the mass suicide, in 1978, in Guyana, of the cult leader Jim Jones and his followers in the People’s Temple.
Where did they get this belief? From a perfect, unbiased source–an academic:
Doyle’s memoir emerged from an oral-history project conducted by the religious-studies scholar Catherine Wessinger, who maintains that the People’s Temple was an example of the “fragile” subset of millennial groups: defensive and unstable, and willing to initiate great violence in response to an outside threat.
But, as Gladwell observes, the Branch Davidians didn’t hide or keep people locked away in their compound. They didn’t sit around waiting for the end of the world. Instead, they “engaged freely and happily with the world around them.” Members of the group came and went at will. Koresh himself went into town several times a week to take a bible study group out for beers, or to jam with local musicians.
There were guns at the compound because the group ran a legal business buying and selling them. In other words, aside from being an oddball group of religious nuts, the Branch Davidians were no worse than anyone else’s neighbors. No one was held hostage. David Koresh wasn’t Warren Jeffs.
Gladwell points out that transcripts of the negotiations are telling, and they are–even more telling than he realizes. The FBI followed its script as if they were dealing with garden variety gangsters who would trade their own mothers to save their skins. It never apparently occurred to them to treat the Branch Davidians as people who believed what they professed, let alone as normal human beings.
On another occasion, the Davidians asked the F.B.I. to bring milk for their children, and the bureau insisted that some of the children be released before the supplies were handed over:
F.B.I.: We got the milk for you . . . we’ll bring the milk down. We’ll drop it off. . . . In return, we want four of your kids to come up, and we’re going to give you the milk for the kids.
This is how negotiations are supposed to work: tit for tat. But what proposal could have been more offensive and perplexing to a Branch Davidian? The bureau wanted to separate children from their parents and extract them from the community to which they belonged in exchange for milk. “That doesn’t make any sense,” a Davidian named Kathy S. tells the negotiator. But the negotiator thinks she means that the terms of the deal aren’t good enough.
See what’s going on there? The FBI, unable to let go of its powerfully-held belief that the Davidians were a cult led by a con man, or some kind of criminal gang, tried to trade supplies for hostages. They did this over and over in the lead-up to the final attack. But because the Davidians weren’t a cult, they just saw armed men demanding hostages in exchange for supplies.
The LEOs involved in the operation refused to consider any interpretation other than the one they were handed in the beginning. And in the end, they unleashed violence at the people they couldn’t understand. So who’s really the ‘fragile’ and defensive group that initiates great violence in response to outsiders’ failure to play along with their manichean worldview?
I don’t mean to tar all LEOs with this brush. There are certainly good people in blue — I’ve met a few myself. But, they are at least as prone to groupthink and bunker mentality as any other organization, and likely moreso given the nature of their work. It’s what led Lon Horiuchi to kill someone he couldn’t even see, and what led the LAPD to shoot up a random truck and two innocent citizens during the manhunt for Micheal Dorner.
So it’s not that some cops are willing and eager jackbooted thugs. The potential danger in Connecticut is that someday soon, officers like the ones who ran the Waco siege may show up at the home of a gun owner who’s done nothing but have his name appear on a list of people whose registration forms arrived on Jan 2. They’ll be thoroughly convinced that gun owner is a violent domestic terrorist who’s holding the rest of the family hostage. They’ll demand his or her spouse or children in exchange for food or a phone call.
And if s/he says no, as almost any of us would, the negotiator will just assume they’re holding out for more. They’ll think of the gun owner as the one who’s trading on the family’s lives. And then, at some point, they’ll call it quits and send in the tanks.