What are the lessons to be drawn from the Mount Carmel tragedy? Why did it happen? What can any of us do to prevent the recurrence of such an event in the future? These are the questions that pain our souls. And yet, if we focus in too closely on the event itself, we will miss the answers to all of these questions.

Probably the worse disabilities that afflict members of the national news media are myopia and attention deficit. Unless something is right here, right now and titillating, the general attitude is: “Forget it and get lost.” Fortunately, the media are much better at covering sports. Let me give you an example.

As the 1993 Super Bowl was about to come to an end, with the Dallas Cowboys the overwhelming victors, the Buffalo Bills had to call their last few plays. If a reporter had arrived at the game during the last two minutes, without his glasses so that he could not see the scoreboard, he would not have known the game was over. Suppose the Bills had thrown an interception that was returned for a touchdown on the last play of the game? The reporter quite likely would have concluded that the final play affected the outcome. And he would have questioned the coach’s call.

So it was with the Mount Carmel tragedy. The national news media came in for the final play, oblivious to all that had gone on before. So did the ATF and the FBI. Neither knew the game was already over — that all that was left was the final play. (Since the ability to read minds has not yet been developed, none of us knew and none of us can be blamed for not knowing). Now, the media are deeply involved in analyzing the final play called by the FBI, as if it really affected the final outcome.

If the news media could not get properly focused, they could help us all discover the real lessons to be learned from this event. To begin with, this was not the Mount Carmel tragedy — it was the Mount Carmel tragedies. What actually happened was that, by chance, over 100 tragedies came together at a particular time and place to be made manifest.

The real story

The real story here can be found in some of the following questions:

  • How did such a diverse group of tragic figures happen to find their way to come together at this time and this place?
  • Why were all these adults as deficient in self-esteem as to fall under the spell of David Koresh?
  • What are the needs these people had that were not met by their families, their churches, their schools, their societies and their governments?
  • Why in a country that calls itself a democracy, and where the people have strongly favored gun-control legislation for more than a generation, was the government helpless to prevent such a concentration of civilian firepower?

Lacked seriousness

The charge was made against Geoffrey Chaucer, author of Canterbury Tales, that he lacked high seriousness in his writing. I make that same charge against the media. Since, in a democracy, people cannot depend on government to report on itself, a free press is the only alternative. But how can the people govern themselves when the free press fails to inform them?

Members of the media have nearsightedly focused in on the final play at Mount Carmel (due to their attention deficit), and are looking for someone to blame. They are playing an unfair game of “gotcha” with the FBI, Attorney General Reno and President Clinton. They can’t accept the fact the game was over when these players came on to the field.

Members of the media can’t say what they would have done differently. That’s not their job. But they are willing to analyze one play, and tell the world it was the whole game. And most of all, they are unwilling to do the work to go out and dig up the real story of the little events all over the globe that led up to the big event at Mount Carmel. If the media would do that, an informed public could rise up and prevent the next Mount Carmel.

Charles Reed is a former mayor of Waco.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.