The catastrophe at Mount Carmel was exactly what everyone — except maybe Vernon Howell — hoped to avoid.
Monday’s deadly conflagration at the Branch Davidian compound was the worst possible ending to the government’s 51-day standoff involving federal agents and the heavily armed religious cult. FBI officials saw their hopes for a peaceable resolution go up in flames.
The friends and family members of the Branch Davidians who died in the wind-swept fire are grief-stricken over the tragic loss of their loved ones. Men, women and children from several nations died in the fire.
Now is the time to mourn the many people — both federal agents and Branch Davidians — who have died since the Feb. 28 assault on the religious compound by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents.
Four ATF agents were killed and 16 were wounded during the initial assault on the compound 10 miles east of Waco. As many as six cult members may have died that day. The ATF assault team of 100-plus agents attempted to serve search and arrest warrants for illegal weapons. It now appears that nearly 100 people lost their lives since the initial Feb. 28 assault and the following seven-week siege. The event that unfolded outside Waco became a tragedy of immense proportions.
The fire erupted just over six hours after FBI agents began punching holes into the compound with armored vehicles and pumping tear gas into the building in an effort to end the standoff. Federal officials say they witnessed cult members torching the compound, fulfilling one of cult leader Howell’s apocalyptic predictions.
There will be investigations, but it appears the actions taken Monday by the FBI were simply another effort to further restrict the perimeter and put additional pressure on the cult members in the hopes of resolving the situation peacefully. It looks as though Howell made the decision to kill himself and his followers, which distressfully included pregnant women and innocent children.
If Howell was suicidal — as events strongly indicate — then it is possible that Monday’s deadly ending would have come to the same result eventually.
Attorney General Janet Reno, who gave the approval for Monday’s actions, correctly said the tragedy calls for an investigation to find what can be done in the future to prevent a repetition of this senseless loss of life. “If there are ways to do it better, I welcome those,” she said.
After what happened in the shootout at the Mount Carmel commune, agents could not have been blamed for wanting to return with all the firepower available and raze the compound. To their credit, they waited it out and gave Howell every opportunity to surrender peacefully. Howell even got access to high-priced legal counsel.
It seems that many lessons can be ascertained from this terrible episode, both for local government and for the federal government.
Reports of illegal activity must be taken seriously, not allowed to age on the shelf. Had the concerns of former cult members —not just about firearms but about physical, psychological and sexual abuse — been addressed two years ago when first brought to law enforcement’s attention, things might have been different. Also, Howell could have been arrested outside of the compound without a gun battle.
Now is a time for mourning. But as fitting as it is to grieve, it is just as fitting to ponder what can be done so that what happened at Mount Carmel never happens again.