The important lesson of David Koresh

Last night I watched ABC’s new documentary, “Truth and Lies,” about the 1993 Branch Davidian siege, stand-off, and eventual catastrophe. I won’t repeat the sad tale here, but suffice it to say that by the time the entire ordeal was over, four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms were dead, along with 79 of David Koresh’s followers. Koresh’s own death brought the count of total Branch Davidian dead up to 80.

In a noble attempt to reconstruct the truth, the documentary interviewed many of the surviving primary players from the law enforcement side as well as a few of the survivors who escaped the compound just before it collapsed in a swirling, blazing inferno nearly 25 years ago.

Before the blaze, the FBI had spent weeks trying to negotiate a peaceful conclusion. As I listened to recordings of Koresh telling FBI negotiators that God kept telling him to renege on formerly agreed to terms, it occurred to me how this tragedy provides such a clear example, not only of delusion gone awry, but of delusion leading to death and destruction. It also became clear how much downstream tragedy flowed from that compound in Waco.

I didn’t realize until last night that Tim McVeigh, the Oklahoma City terrorist whose truck-bomb killed 168 men, women, and children, was largely radicalized by the events at Waco.

I also didn’t realize until last night that crack-pot conspiracy theorist Alex Jones jump-started his career in the ashes of that Branch Davidian compound. Who knows how much damage to the cause of human well-being Jones’ decades of bizarre tirades and false accusations have caused. Who knows how much hatred he has sewn by his relentless undermining of democratic institutions. He’s a Sandy-hook denying, deep-state believing, vaccine fearing, Pizzagate inspiring, fake news creating loon who has an audience of millions hanging, and sometimes acting, on his every word. It’s shocking.

And all of this goes back to one man, David Koresh. Koresh was a Seventh-day Adventist who convinced a bunch of people that he had a direct line of communication to God and that everything he did was according to God’s instructions. Thus a cult was born, as Koresh as its leader. Many of those people in Koresh’s cult were parents. And many of those parents had their children with them in the compound when it was engulfed in flame. Those kids never stood a chance even before their sad early demise. They were being indoctrinated by their parents and their parents were just as deluded as Koresh.

All of this leads me to one important point which is the central theme of my book. The point is this:

Many of humanity’s worst ideas only persist because of either the inability or unwillingness of otherwise rational adults to examine and critique their own deeply held beliefs through the reason-based lens of critical thinking, and because otherwise rational adults are unwilling to hold those with irrational beliefs to account.

So whenever I’m asked, why do I bother? Why do I care what young earth creationists believe or why do I care when a parent wants to treat their own child with oils and prayer rather than the tools of modern medicine, the tragic story of the Branch Davidians provides an example. Because what underpins all of those beliefs, even beliefs as seemingly innocuous as creationism, is irrationality and poor epistemology.

What if just one person spoke up when David Koresh was young and challenged him to examine his beliefs? What if all of this tragedy and turmoil was one reason-based intervention away from being avoided entirely? As was illustrated in Waco those many years ago, as soon as people begin to place their beliefs on equal footing with reality, things can get dangerous, even deadly.  And reality doesn’t care what anyone believes.

I’m reminded of a quote by John Stuart Mill from his inaugural address to the University of St. Andrews in 1867:

Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.

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