Like Mussolini or Kennedy, I’m anything you want to be. I’m a cult of personality. —Living Color

The subject has been cults.

Cults. As in Rita Riddle telling reporter Mark England a shoot-out with federal authorities was “exciting.” Cults, as in “If they cast us into prison, so what? If they killed us, so what?”

Cults. One looks at those words and doesn’t know whether to comfort Rita Riddle or shake her.

My dictionary defines a cult as a group obsessed — fixated by a person, principle or ideal. Yep. That’s the Branch Davidians.

Then again, it could be the rest of us all well. Look at the April issue of Life magazine, which is devoted to the 25th anniversary of the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. “We imagine what they meant to us,” says the cover, “and what might have been.”

Inside are the remarks of many people who knew the real men and a few who’ve made King and Kennedy anything they want them to be.”

“People who are in power in white American have twisted the image of Dr. King to take the sting out of who he was.” That’s rapper Sister Souljah talking. She thinks King would have endorsed violence in some conditions, which, we must interpret, Sister Souljah believes exist now.

Clayborne Carson, a Stanford professor and King scholar, says that people like Sister Souljah haven’t a clue. “One of the misconceptions is that nonviolence is passivity,” he writes. “What nonviolence is passivity,” he writes. “What nonviolent resistance really meant was resistance, and it was aggressive, and it was an insistence. . .”

The real loss

We should all be past the mourning stage for two young leaders 25 years gone. What’s left to mourn is the fact that so many crawled into monasteries of grief instead of carrying on what King and Kennedy stood for. And now we have Sister Souljah offering to serve as King’s spokesperson.

The real tragedy in their deaths is that so many people had invested so much in their personalities (see “cult” in Webster’s) that they were immobilized when it came time to give life to their words.

How sad that a great nation such as ours would wonder, “What might have been? 2 ½ decades after two men’s deaths. I can see that kind of wondering in a primitive nation, an uneducated nation, a hopeless nation, but not ours.

Very mortal Bobby

Was Bobby Kennedy a messiah? Hardly. He was a mortal riding the waves of family fortune and tragedy. He was a ruthless politico for a time. Then, his brother dead, his political future in doubt, Kennedy experienced a sea change of conscience when he visited New York’s ghettos. He’d have been a great president, but only because personal crisis had sent him searching.

It doesn’t make sense that only Bobby Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. could have carried out the visions with which they were indentified.

The loss of these two men was incalculable. But, then, why calculate? We have what we have, which is us — the living. You and I don’t have that many quarter centuries in us. Are there no other Americans with intelligence, vision, compassion, oratory, courage? Or are we cultists?

I think so. Too many of us think of public affairs as we do spectator sports. We idolize and root. We choose our teams, wave our pennants. When the star is no more, we pine for the good old days.

But democracy is not a spectator sport. Democracy is participation. We are cultists when we wait for a political savior. Look at Waco. We have city and school board elections May 1. Of six races, only two are contested. What are you waiting for, Waco? The Second Coming?

We’re used to having saviors. Idols. We’re cultists. Face it. If we’re not, we should stop mourning, chanting and burning incense, and see what each of us can do to change the way things are.

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 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.