Persecution, American-Style

The Japanese believe that the United States often emphasizes individual rights at the expense of society as a whole," a front-page article in The New York Times reported last week.

This was by way of explaining Japan's crackdown on Aum Shinrikyo, which carried out a nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway four years ago, killing a dozen people and sickening thousands. Local governments have been refusing to grant followers of the sect residence permits, without which they cannot legally work or obtain driver's licenses, passports or public services. Children of Aum members have been turned away from public schools and parks. It appears that most Japanese do not object to these tactics.

The crackdown suggests a contrast with the United States, where unconventional religious groups presumably do not have to worry about this sort of persecution. But that take was undercut by another front-page article the same day, concerning the Federal Government's 1993 confrontation with the Branch Davidians near Waco, Tex.

That incident, the deadliest law enforcement operation in American history, was in the news again because the Federal Bureau of Investigation had finally admitted, after six years of denial, that it used "pyrotechnic" tear gas canisters against the Davidians on the day flames swept through their residence. The F.B.I. continues to insist that the fire -- after which 80 people, including 25 children, were found dead -- was started by the Davidians themselves.

Even if that's true, the Government created a situation where mass suicide was entirely predictable. Its actions -- including a gratuitous raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; a 51-day siege during which the F.B.I. used harassment techniques to unnerve the Davidians, and a final onslaught in which tanks rammed the group's home, Mount Carmel, while loudspeakers incongruously announced, "This is not an assault" -- seemed calculated to convince an apocalyptic sect that the end was indeed nigh.

It is sobering to recall that the justification for the initial B.A.T.F. raid was the suspicion that residents of Mount Carmel had illegally converted semiautomatic weapons to machine guns. For this victimless crime by a few of their members, scores of Davidians ultimately died.

Before the raid, the Davidians had not been charged with harming or threatening anyone, in contrast to members of the Aum Shinrikyo sect. And what has happened to Aum members pales in comparison with what happened to the Davidians. Yet I suspect that many Americans who disapprove of Japan's intolerance still believe that the Davidians basically got what they deserved.

The Davidians were stigmatized as a dangerous "doomsday cult" unworthy of respect, muting the public outcry about their mistreatment. They were tarred with unsubstantiated allegations of child abuse and accused of hostile intent because they owned guns. Their beliefs were depicted as utterly bizarre and alien, and the Davidians themselves were portrayed as mindless drones under David Koresh's spell, when in fact many of them were highly educated.

During its siege, the F.B.I. kept the press away and withheld a videotape from Mount Carmel that showed not a sinister collective but individual human beings with strong religious beliefs.

The vilification and isolation encouraged the Davidians to conclude that a peaceful resolution was impossible. And thus the perception that they were inclined to violence because of their beliefs became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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