Only one time during this crisis have the perplexed people of America been able to look into the eyes of the Branch Davidians.

Not Vernon Howell’s eyes. Lord knows we’ve seen those.

The only chance to see the other eyes has been snippets of an Australian documentary about the group. See those eyes — wide and riveted on Howell, who has one hand clenched in a fish, one cradling the Bible.

I’ve tried to put myself in the Branch Davidians’ shoes, but they don’t fit. So have others, like a man from Watertown, N.Y., who called on the phone and faxed a plea for Texas to support Howell and fight back against the government.

“Is there not a real man or woman left in Texas, or are they all surrounded by federal killers just outside of Waco,” he said.

If there is a murder trial of Vernon Howell and his armed followers, the case will come down to this question: Who fired first? If federal agents fired first, as Howell alleges, we have a brutal abuse of power on our hands. If the Davidians fired first, they courted an earthly version of hell’s fire.

The man from Watertown, who is a Vietnam vet, a farmer and a businessman, said if he had federal agents on his property as these did, he’d shoot, too.

Shoot first? I challenged him. Any civilian who thinks he or she can outshoot or outwait the United State government hasn’t calculated.

Judging him to be of sound mine, I wagered that if lawmen showed up at his door with a warrant and he believed himself innocent of the charges, he’d come out with his hands up and say, “All right. Don’t shoot. Now, prove your case in court.”

Obeying the law

Each day’s news is filled with stories of violence, a lot of them having to do with sick people, addicts, or juvenile sociopaths. Yet here was a story of violence involving people with intelligence and strictly constructed values systems. How could it be?

Crime may be rampant, but let’s face it. Obeying the law is not that difficult — maybe with the exception of itemizing your deductions and driving 55.

Proposition: The Branch Davidians were like the rest of us, minding their own business. The feds had no proof they’d broken the law.

Proposition: That’s what a warrant is for — due process. That’s what the ATF came to deliver.

So once again, the question is, who fired first? If the agents fired first we have a ghastly abuse of power. If the Davidians fired first, they decided to waive their rights, and, most frighteningly, those of their children.

Would he fire first?

The man from Watertown, whom I judged to be reasonable, was making an unreasonable statement: If the agents came for him, he’d fire.

“Even if you were confident you could clear your name in court?” I asked.

I sensed him balk. I sensed that ultimately he would agree that at times discretion is the better part of valor.

Judging by the reaction of this reasonable man — a man who sympathizes with the Davidians and detests the government that sent him to Vietnam — the only reasonable reaction by the Davidians would have been to put those hands up. March out the door. Let the courts decide this. After all, the courts spared Howell and others in a 1987 shoot-out. Are we to believe they could not trust the system?

Many want to believe the Davidians are victims of a bullying government. Maybe that’s a truth. Maybe the government fired first.

But if the Davidians fired first — even with a truckload of armed federal agents out front — these ordinary, intelligent people were no longer ordinary, no longer innocent. They were just plain ready to die.

John Young’s column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part Two 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.

Read the accounts of 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.