Civil Liberties

Revisiting the Waco Siege

Negotiations gone wrong.


Malcolm Gladwell, of all people, has published a searing indictment of the feds' behavior in the Waco siege of 1993, when the ATF attempted to raid the Branch Davidian religious community, the Davidians fired on the invading agents (who may have fired first), and a long standoff ended with dozens of Davidians dying a fiery death. Gladwell's basic argument is that the government fundamentally misunderstood what sort of group it was dealing with:

Cackling in the flames? Seriously, TIME?

[The FBI's] task, as they saw it, was to peel away the pretense—Koresh's posturing, his lies, his grandiosity—and compel him to take specific steps toward a resolution.

That is standard negotiation practice, which is based on the idea that, through sufficient patience and reason, a deranged husband or a cornered bank robber can be moved from emotionality to rationality. Negotiation is an exercise in pragmatism—in bargaining over a series of concrete objectives: If you give up one of your weapons, I will bring you water. When this approach failed, the F.B.I. threw up its hands. In bureau parlance, the situation at Mount Carmel became "non-negotiable." What more could the bureau have done? "I guess we could have fenced it off and called it a federal prison," Bob Ricks, one of the lead F.B.I. agents during the siege, said last year in an interview.

But, as the conflict-studies scholar Jayne Docherty argues, the F.B.I.'s approach was doomed from the outset. In "Learning Lessons from Waco"—one of the very best of the Mount Carmel retrospectives—Docherty points out that the techniques that work on bank robbers don't work on committed believers. There was no pragmatism hidden below a layer of posturing, lies, and grandiosity.

At one point, Gladwell writes, "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":

"Listen. I'll, I'll get the milk to you for two 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:

F.B.I.: Listen. I'll, I'll get the milk to you for two kids.

Again, Kathy S. reacts angrily, and the negotiator gives up. He thinks the problem is that he's saddled with someone who just isn't reasonable.

Gladwell's argument will be familiar to people who have already delved into the subject, but it'll be new to a lot of his readers. Check out the whole thing here. And for a selection of Reason's Waco coverage, go here, herehere, here, here, and (way back in '93 itself) here.

Bonus links: For the last time I said something nice about a Malcolm Gladwell article, which doubles as the only time I have said something nice about a David Denby article, dial the Wayback Machine to 2004 and go here. To see me being less enthusiastic about Gladwell's work, go here, here, and here. And to see the one time the man wrote something for Reason, go here.