'Cult Label Caused Waco Trouble' COPYRIGHT PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE 450 Mission Street, Room 5
"Cult Label Caused Waco Trouble"
COPYRIGHT PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE 450 Mission Street,
Room 506 San Francisco, CA 94105 415-243-4364
OPINION AND ANALYSIS -- 775 WORDS
CULT LABEL MADE WACO VIOLENCE INEVITABLE
EDITOR'S NOTE: The labelling of religious groups as "cults" by law
enforcement and the media appears to have the same effect as earlier
calling some political group "communist": it immediately brands them
as suspect and evil. With law enforcement training seminars now
widely instructing agents about "cult dangers," it was an almost foregone
conclusion that the Waco, Texas, confrontation would end in bloody
violence. PNS analyst Robert Hicks is a former police officer and
author of "In Pursuit of Satan: The Police and the Occult" (Prometheus,
BY ROBERT HICKS, PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
Ever since the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) laid
siege on Feb. 28 to the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas,
observers -- including some law enforcement leaders -- have
questioned the assault. Other than suspecting that the Branch
Davidians were violating federal firearms laws, the ATF has offered
no explanation for the raid. What did the ATF think was going on?
The strongest hint of the ATF's rationale lies in their language --
labelling the Branch Davidians as a "cult" and their leader David
Koresh as a "self-proclaimed messiah." By labelling the Branch
Davidians as a "cult," the ATF -- and the news media which have
followed its lead -- has branded the group's motivations as criminal
and even evil.
Talk of "cults" abounds these days. The Matamoros killings in Mexico in
1989 were attributed by newspaper reports to a witchcraft "cult." Muslims
everywhere, it seems, can't escape the "cult" description since they are
led by "fanatical extremists." And our TV sets regulary treat us to
middle-aged white women claiming to have had babies in Satanic "cults."
The allure of the word "cult" in the popular mind lies in its vague
meaning; it sets people with apparently odd beliefs apart from the rest
of "us" who are, by definition, moral. The word allows us to create a
"them" and distance ourselves from it. We have religion; they have a
Law enforcement officers have been quick to label as "cults" religions
that involve animal sacrifice and spirit worship. The Matamoros killings
in Mexico, for example, were followed by sensational publicity that played
up the ties of those involved with Afro-Caribbean religions such as
Palo Mayombe and Santeria.
Santeria is a legal religion in the United States practiced by Cuban
immigrants from New York to Miami. Yet, according to ex-cop and
"cult consultant" Dale Griffis, it has become the religion of choice for
drug smugglers. The implication is that adherents to Santeria have a
priori criminal proclivities, rather than that some adherents -- as in
all religions -- commit crimes. Griffis is typical of law enforcement
officials who use the word "cult" to denote anything not mainstream.
For law enforcement officials, the "cult" model does indeed have
menacing attributes that go way beyond a messianic leader who
dominates his followers. The descriptions one finds in law
enforcement training seminars are replete with references to a
"charismatic, controlling leader" who proselytizes through "mind
A three-part series in the influential FBI Law Enforcement Journal
from 1982, examining "cults" and their "sometimes detrimental effects,"
goes beyond mind control to churn up a discussion of brainwashing.
And brainwashing not with a religious purpose, either, but to inculcate
loyalty to a "cult" leader who believes himself above the law.
The articles portray "cult" members as "childlike" in their docility and
conclude that law enforcers "must be responsible enough to avoid
interfering with religious beliefs; (but)...certain "cult" behavior (i.e.,
fraud, violence, deceptive practices) appears to result in substantial
harm to society and this outweighs their First Amendment protection.
Moreover, some "cult" recruitment methods and behavior-control
techniques indicate that decisions to join and remain in the "cult" often
are not freely and voluntarily made."
Contrary to the FBI's assertion, sociologists of religion have
demonstrated that most religious groups' adherents come and go;
people's participation in "cults" is largely voluntary. Law enforcement's
contention that "cults" cloak their true nature under the Constitution --
thereby justifying the setting aside of First Amendment protections -- is
a dangerous Catch-22.
Once the police feel that the First Amendment shelters criminal
religious groups, they will feel less constrained by the same Bill of
Rights in their zeal to protect us. The First Amendment has never
protected those who commit crimes. And people do conspire to
commit crime, sometimes in furtherance of religion. But when one is
deploying 100 officers to charge a compound of well-armed people, one
needs to be certain that real criminal acts have been committed or are
Most of our knowledge of small religious groups comes from apostates
or defectors, whose information must be checked against independent
sources. And incidents of "cult" violence, coercion, or the gloss of
"destructive behavior" do not support the "false conclusion suggested
by many "cult" critics that "cult" life is inherently dangerous or
threatening," according to Dr. Gordon Melton, possibly our pre-
eminent authority on "alternative religions."
We know precious little about Branch Davidians. We don't know why
the ATF began a shoot-out. But if ATF and other government
authorities simply adopted cultspeak to define the menacing "them,"
then a shoddy linguistic grid filtered their perceptions and determined
their actions. And at the moment, the Waco stand-off shows little hope
of a peaceful resolution.
(03121993) **** END **** COPYRIGHT PNS
+ Origin: NY Transfer News Service. (718) 448-2358 (1:1033/0)
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank