What Can We Learn from the Branch Davidians? March 24, 2014

What Can We Learn from the Branch Davidians?

In a fascinating story for the New Yorker — subtitled “How not to negotiate with believers” — Malcolm Gladwell takes us back to the tragedy in Waco more than two decades ago, when 76 members of the Branch Davidian sect were killed (many of them children), and suggests that the massacre could have been avoided if we just tried to learn more about their religious beliefs instead of simply dismissing them for being so ludicrous:

Because the F.B.I. could not take the faith of the Branch Davidians seriously, it had no meaningful way to communicate with them

Mainstream American society finds it easiest to be tolerant when the outsider chooses to minimize the differences that separate him from the majority. The country club opens its doors to Jews. The university welcomes African-Americans. Heterosexuals extend the privilege of marriage to the gay community. Whenever these liberal feats are accomplished, we congratulate ourselves. But it is not exactly a major moral accomplishment for Waspy golfers to accept Jews who have decided that they, too, wish to play golf. It is a much harder form of tolerance to accept an outsider group that chooses to maximize its differences from the broader culture. And the lesson of Clive Doyle’s memoir — and the battle of Mount Carmel — is that Americans aren’t very good at respecting the freedom of others to be so obnoxiously different.

While it’s implied in the piece, what Gladwell doesn’t state outright is that there’s a reason we couldn’t just “respect their freedom”: their cult involved leader David Koresh marrying women, some of whom were barely teenagers. Those kids were never given a real choice in the matter.

It’s the same reason so many of us cringe at the thought of the Quiverfull movement — where a wife gives birth to many, many children (think Duggars). It’s not just a decision made by a husband and wife; it’s a decision that affects the children in those families, kids who are ultimately tasked with secondary roles as caregivers whether they want to be or not.

So it’s not that the Branch Davidians’ beliefs deserved any sort of respect. Still, as Gladwell points out, by understanding their motives and End times theology, the F.B.I. could have avoided a debacle that killed so many and may also have been the motivation for the Oklahoma City bombing.

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