Something about the end of the 20th century struck fear in lots of people in the 1990s. The decade saw several new religious movements, aka cults, bring about their own sensational destructions out of fears that the end was nigh. The Order of the Solar Temple carried out several mass murder-suicides from 1994 to 1997, resulting in the deaths of 74 members. That cult’s final self-destructive event was overshadowed by another similar event the same month. In March 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide in a southern California compound.
And before either of those cults made headlines, the world’s attention had been captivated by the media frenzy around a group of religious zealots on a compound outside of Waco, Texas, calling themselves the Branch Davidians. According to ABC News, members of the cult had been led by the charismatic and controlling David Koresh to believe that the world was on the cusp of the apocalypse prophesied in the biblical Book of Revelation. The Waco Tribune-Herald ran a sensational investigative series into the activities of the Branch Davidians, reporting allegations of child abuse and illegal firearm ownership, and impelling the authorities to take action. After a 51-day siege by FBI and ATF agents, the standoff finally came to a fiery end that left dozens of people dead.
The deaths of the Branch Davidian cult probably could have been prevented
A total of 76 Branch Davidians died as a result of the government’s siege of their compound in Mount Carmel, Texas. On April 19, 1993, the FBI launched an assault with tanks and tear gas, and the latter sparked a huge fire on the Branch Davidians’ compound. Writing for The Conversation, religious scholar Catherine Wessinger noted that 20 children and two miscarried babies were among the dead. Nine cult members were able to escape.
She also noted that the tragedy could have been completely avoided had authorities and the media kept emotions out of the situation, arguing that the media’s “cult” labeling instantly dehumanized the individuals in the group and pegged the Branch Davidians in the minds of the public as an aberrant and violent sect that deserved the state violence it ultimately received. (She also noted that a social worker from Child Protective Services had investigated the claims of child abuse in the group and did not find any.) The FBI also ignored the lead negotiator on the case, who believed confrontation was not necessary to end the standoff. After he noticed that the world hadn’t ended, David Koresh even planned to surrender. He just wanted to finish writing up one last biblical treatise beforehand, but authorities launched their siege before he could do so. As with all cult dramas that end in disaster, the real victims were the young ones brought into a fallacious ideology without their consent and forced to pay the ultimate price for the whims of their misguided parents.
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