On Waco, “Waco,” And Cults

Another horrible occurrence that I did not mention yesterday while review the ethics-related events of April 19 through the centuries was the tragic conclusion of the FBI’s seige against Mount Carmel in Waco, Texas, in 1993. After a 51-day stand-off between the federal government and an armed religious cult, the compound burned to the ground, with about 80 members of Branch Davidians, including 22 children, dying in the blaze.

This was an ethics train wreck to be sure, and an unusually deadly one. There are so many documentaries and online accounts of the incident (of various quality and accuracy) that I’m not going to add to them here. I do recommend the 2018 Showtime docudrama series “Waco,” which is now streaming with a fascinating new sequel, “Waco: Aftermath,” currently being presented on Showtime.

There is a natural bias in “Waco”: its main sources were a book by one of the survivors and cult members whose wife perished in the fire, and another by an FBI negotiator who was extremely critical of how the agency handled the situation. Both authors come off as heroes of the disaster to the extent that such a botch can have heroes. When the docudrama premiered in 2018, many reviewers complained that the writers treated the FBI as the villains of the story, with cult leader David Koresh portrayed too sympathetically.

My impression, seeing “Waco” now, is that the series’ creators were on to something that has come into sharper focus in recent years. The FBI abuses its power, is badly managed, has too much autonomy, and can’t be trusted. That should have sunk in in 1993, but the news media was determined to let the hallowed law enforcement agency, Attorney General Janet Reno, and especially President Bill Clinton off the hook. I remember the coverage well: Koresh’s cult was lumped into the paramilitary and survivalist anti-government movement of the period. The Waco siege followed on the heels of the Ruby Ridge fiasco the year before, involving the same federal agencies, the FBI and the ATF. Even though that fatal showdown was ultimately shown to be exacerbated by the Feds (and a lawsuit found the agencies liable for damages), the public and media still were conditioned to regard the FBI as the “good guys.” Sure, it was tragic that people died, but the consensus was that they brought it on themselves, sad as the outcome was. At the time, I found it astounding that Reno wasn’t forced to resign, and that President Clinton escaped any accountability at all.

Much of that result was because of the subsequent Oklahoma City Bombing by Timothy McVeigh in 1995. Public opinion was turning against the trend of over-aggressive government following Waco: Rush Limbaugh in particular was leading a daily attack on what he saw as as Big Government restrictions on personal liberties (like the right to live out in the desert with fellow followers of a deranged but charismatic religious fanatic who claimed to be chosen by God). Once McVeigh’s truck brought down the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, destroyed or damaged 324 other buildings within a 16-block radius, killed 168 people and injured 680, however, public opinion turned decisively the government’s way. McVeigh cited Waco as a major reason for his terrorism, and the Cognitive Dissonance Scale worked its predictable magic: now the Branch Davidians were linked to pure evil. The FBI, and thus the U.S. government, propelled to the other side of the scale, the “good guys” at Waco, at Ruby Ridge, and always.

They aren’t, and weren’t. “Waco,” for all its flaws, makes that contrary conclusion unavoidable.

What I found most striking about “Waco” was the examination of how cults operate. Insecure, needy, not necessarily stupid people (though it helps) but naturally submissive individuals looking for safety and stability in a perceived reality that seems to overwhelming gravitate to systems, cant and constructs promising formulas to solve all problems. They place their trust and faith in charismatic, narcissistic, intelligent and eloquent leaders whose appeal is that they have no doubts at all about their own virtue and authority. Their followers feel no more responsibility to make difficult choices, and that gives them a sense of safety and confidence. Cult members can’t be persuaded by facts or arguments, history or reasoning. Trying to control them by force is, at best, risky, since the reaction of members depends entirely on the whims of the cult leader.

Cults and cult leaders have had an outsized and mostly destructive impact on human history. Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were cult leaders. The United States has been fortunate that until recently, outbreaks of cultism have been far and few between and usually on the margins. A cult leader is poison to democracy: George Washington, who had all of the characteristics that could have attracted a cult following, was aware of the peril and took measures to prevent it, such as refusing to run for a third term as President. Just a few Presidents since have approached, and exploited, cult status: Jackson, FDR, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama…and Donald Trump.

The interaction between Koresh and the FBI shown in “Waco” is a cautionary tale: the cult leader did not respect or trust his adversary, and the FBI was convinced that Koresh was mad. Sound familiar? Right now, the U.S. is crawling with powerful and influential cults, and their strength is magnified by social media, the 24-7 news cycle, the corrupt news media, and political parties eager to weaponize cults to gain power. Let’s see: Climate change hysteria is the most obvious cult, and Greta Thunberg is almost a parody of a cult leader. Black Lives Matter is a cult; fortunately, it never developed a leader, which is why it is weakening now. Abortion is a cult. DEI and Critical Race Theory are cults: the cult leaders appear to be cynical and scruple-free consultants. The trans mania is definitely a cult; again, one without a leader (yet).

With all of these we see how corporations and institutions are terrified of cults and reluctant to oppose them, having no core beliefs themselves—or, in most cases, spines. Joe McCarthy was a cult leader: as in the Hans Christian Anderson tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” it only took one high profile instance of someone calling him out on his bad character to break his spell. “Social influencers” are high-tech cult leaders, which is why the Biden White House’s effort to buy their support is ominous. Tucker Carlson is a cult leader, as ridiculous as that seems.

In short, today’s culture in the U.S. has far too many cults and cult leaders, and, as illustrated in “Waco,” cults are distrustful, insular, and dangerous. They preclude ethics by definition: cults operate by enforced morality; reasoning, analysis, self-awareness are precluded. For teh leader, the operating rationalization is #14. Self-validating Virtue.

With that fallacy, the rightness of conduct and assertions are determined by the perceived virtue of the cult leader who is acting and speaking: what he or she does or says must be good, because the leader is good.

At one point that gave me a few chills, Koresh’s main aide and advisor, Steve Schneider, has a private meeting with Gary Noesner, head of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit. Schneider, a smart man and theologian who constantly tried to moderate Koresh’s decisions and behavior, admits that Koresh is “horrible.” He then says that he often finds it frustrating that God chose Koresh to be his prophet on earth. I heard that and recalled my statement here, made more than once, that it was a sick twist of fate that the only figure who appeared to be able to mobilize effective opposition against the onslaught of progressive extremism in American politics and culture was a repellent, ethics-free, chaotic figure like Donald Trump.

Cults and cult leaders are anathema to a free society. So are rogue government agencies convinced of their own infallibility.

We have to find a way to stop both.

15 thoughts on “On Waco, “Waco,” And Cults

  1. Jack, excellent post. Social media gives a pulpit to anyone and everyone, including the nuts that used to just yell on street corners. Now they can yell at the whole world. Competition for page views and an over-proliferation of news channels and sites has totally corrupted the news media . It’s getting harder and harder to find the bare bones facts on any issue. It’s time-consuming and frustrating.

    (There’s a typo in the date of the Oklahoma bombing.)

  2. It is a sad feature of common psychology that apparent certainty, whether fake or genuine, is so persuasive. Extreme confidence in one’s rightness and the inevitably of success should generally be seen as an indication of insincerity or weakness of intellect. There is always uncertainty and alternative views. A crucial aim in education should be to celebrate honest doubt and respect for alternative views. Long way to go ….

    • It’s interesting, because having conviction is also one of the key variables that seems to prevent brainwashing. Is the problem with the leaders or the followers? Wrong conviction can do a lot of harm, but so can weak mindedness.

      Personally, I’m more worried about the people who can be convinced that 2+2 != 4 and there is no real definition of a woman. I think schools ought to be teaching the importance of reality to outcomes and how to recognize manipulation. I think some of the problems in our society come from teaching people to be overly open to new ideas. New ideas are fine, but you shouldn’t just accept any old bullshit at face value. Rewriting social norms just because you can isn’t a great idea. The existing norms exist for a reason. You should identify what those reasons are and what the consequences for changing them will be before upending the Apple cart.

      • Good points, N.P.. One of the problems for many of the young people being brainwashed by academia is that they arrived there without any foundation of strong underlying moral or ethical values, or historical perspective on the success and failure of social and political systems. It is therefore difficult for them to resist the onslaught of woke ideology and the indoctrination of the Left. Let’s all just join hands and sing, “Imagine.” Cults are often attractive in the same way in that they offer certainty to the uncertain and a refuge for the ungrounded seeker. Once cult members are “bought in,” it becomes difficult for them so see even the most blatant contradictions in the leader or inconsistencies in what is taught to followers versus what is practiced by the leader. Any group in which the leader is not a “servant to all” should be immediately suspect.

  3. I have a number of thoughts about the Waco incident, most of which I will keep to myself except to say, “Watch the series on Netflix”. A couple of the people who trained me as a crisis negotiator were agents who were on the negotiation team at Waco.
    Gary Noessner’s book is excellent, and I know him slightly. He has always impressed me as a man of high integrity and great humility.
    Many, many people in this country have not forgotten and will not forget the siege of Mount Carmel or the ill-conceived, unnecessary and ineptly executed ATF raid that precipitated it. Neither have they forgotten the Ruby Ridge incident or the numerous other examples of ATF / FBI overreach throughout the last fifty years. Now the FBI (who used to look down their noses at the ATF) seems to have adopted the long-standing heavy-handed tactics of the ATF, sending black-clad “ninja” tactical teams to make the simplest arrests of even non-violent offenders. I believe there will eventually be a reckoning for all this federal law enforcement excess, and the cost will, I fear, be high.

    Concerning cults generally, a pastor friend of mine asks rhetorically, “What’s the difference between a cult and a recognized religion? About a hundred years.”

    • Agree with you except for the reckoning part. I’m not holding my breath. With Dems (especially their left wing) set to control the country for many years, if not decades, to come as their grip on many institutions strengthen and the percentage of voters who are indoctrinated or otherwise warm to more “social justice” and nanny government policies (i.e. lazy wanting more handouts) continue to increase, the government, especially federal, will only get bigger and more powerful, and thus less accountable. People will only realize their mistake too late. I’ve seen this play out many times and people never wake up in time.

      • I pray that your prediction is wrong, but one of my greatest fears for my grandchildren is that you are right. I am doing all that I can to instill in them our traditional values, beginning with individual responsibility, hard work and liberty, just as I did with my daughter. We are just beginning on rifle marksmanship, starting with air rifles.
        Certainly, some areas of the country and some groups of people (urban vs. rural, for example) are more susceptible to the “boiling frog” scenario you describe, but as an avid recreational shooter and instructor I come in contact with a pretty broad cross-section of my local area, people from all walks of life whose “intersection” is the shooting sports. It isn’t “just” the plinkers or the IPSC handgun shooters or the “three gun” competitors or the smallbore rifle shooters or the bench rest rifle shooters or the long-range centerfire rifle shooters or the trap and skeet shotgunners or the machine gun aficionados or the hunters or the local cops or the retired cops (from all over) or the ammunition reloaders, it is all the members of the firearms community (aka the “gun culture”) who realize full well the danger we face of losing our freedoms, maybe forever. Perhaps no other group in America has more clearly seen the Left’s persistent and relentless efforts to remove an essential right in which they have a strong, clear and obvious stake. Most of these folks had their affinity for the shooting sports passed down from their parents and grandparents. My local gun club has, reluctantly, capped membership due to the limits of range availability on weekends. New indoor and outdoor range facilities are opening regularly in this region. These people are not forgetting. I have hope.

    • Joe Rogan has a similar bit in his stand-up act concerning cult vs. religion.

      “A cult is something started by one guy. It’s bullshit and he knows it’s bullshit. In a religion, that guy is dead.”

  4. Cults survive with . . . “Insecure, needy, not necessarily stupid people (though it helps) but naturally submissive individuals looking for safety and stability in a perceived reality that seems overwhelming gravitate to systems, cant and constructs that promise a formula to solve all problems. They place their trust and faith in charismatic, narcissistic, intelligent and eloquent leaders whose appeal is that they have no doubts at all about their own virtue and authority.”

    Gee that sounds alot like the American electorate.

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