How The FBI Screwed Up Negotiations With A Notorious Religious Sect

The FBI’s siege of the Branch Davidian compound at Mount Carmel in Waco, Texas in 1993 was botched from the beginning, according to Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker.

The Waco Siege, which killed 86 people, was the largest military operation conducted to arrest a civilian in the United States. Twelve tanks, four combat engineering vehicles, and 899 law enforcement officials surrounded the Branch Davidian’s compound in Waco for 51 days.

The FBI was targeting the group’s leader, David Koresh, because they thought he was stockpiling weapons, engaging in polygamy, and sleeping with underage girls, NPR has reported.

In going after Koresh, the FBI obviously demonstrated a massive show of strength, which was standard hostage-negotiating practice. By surrounding a hostage situation, the authorities can force hostage-takers to hand over weapons for essentials like food and water. Negotiations often rely on this sort of pragmatism.

However, the Branch Davidians, a messianic religious branch of Seventh-Day Adventists led by Koresh, were “value-rational.” This meant that they attached more importance to their values than to their goals. Moreover, typical hostage negotiation tactics didn’t work because Koresh didn’t view his followers as hostages, Gladwell writes.

Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker, notes:

To the F.B.I. agent, Mount Carmel was a hostage situation, and the purpose of the “negotiation” was to get the man behind the barricade to release some of his captives. But Koresh saw his followers as his students. They were there of their own free will, to learn the prophecies of Revelation. How could he release people whom he was not holding in the first place?

To further confuse matters, the Branch Davidians saw the events transpiring at Waco as a preordained religious test. The group was not purposefully courting violence from the government, but instead saw the siege as part of the their messianic belief in the apocalypse.

This disconnect between the FBI’s understanding of the group and the outcome of the Waco siege proved disastrous. Although the group in Mount Carmel promised to leave as soon as Koresh finished writing his memoirs, the FBI believed it to be a ruse.

After three days of waiting for the memoirs to be finished, law enforcement raided the compound. During the raid, a massive fire broke out that killed dozens of people, including many children.

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