Monday, October 10, 2005

Millennialists and the State: A Microcosm for the "War on terror"

(note: Here I said that I would be posting more articles related to blog-relevant topics that I had written for school. Here is another. My purpose for publishing these is simple: the expansion of perspective through the open and relatively uninhibited vehicle of internet communication. Feel free to read, and feel free to comment. After that, feel free to consider other perspectives and feel free to investigate more.)

Author Michael Barkun re-examines the nature of the Branch Davidian conflict in his essay entitled "Millennialists and the State: Reflections after Waco", which was first published in the June 2, 1993 issue of the publication Christian Century. In the article, Barkun suggests that the government of the United States misunderstood the beliefs of the Branch Davidians, and this mistake inevitably resulted in a violent end to the standoff in Waco, Texas.

According to Barkun, U.S. law enforcement engaged the Branch Davidians under the false presumption that the religious group, led by David Koresh, was simply a cult operating through a convoluted and delusional perception of reality. Barkun states that the word “cult” supplies a stereotypic label, but not an explanation. Therefore, when the American media characterized the Branch Davidian body of believers as a “cult”, it was automatically cast in a misrepresentational light, and an important understanding of what the Branch Davidians actually believed was lost. The failure of the U.S. government to take the religious beliefs of the Branch Davidians seriously complicated the tense standoff, and perpetuated the church’s belief that the apocalypse was near and that the end would bring a “climactic struggle between good and evil.”

Barkun suggests that a millenarian is an individual who maintains a belief system that anticipates a supernatural revolution, one that redeems the believer from the tribulations of Earth and brings divine judgement on all “evil” in the world. Millennarians often retreat into communal settlements, and these isolated communities provide a shelter for individuals who wish to abstain themselves from the moral ambiguity of mainstream society. Historically, communal settlements offered chances for utopian experimentation, but they also function as a nucleus for radical supremacist ideology. The extreme nature of Millenarian seclusion often draws various stigmatizing labels from the cultural mainstream. These labels may function to demonize or dehumanize the divergent community to protect the homogeneity of the popular culture. Regardless, these labels only hinder the progress of knowledge, and the misuse of such labels can have drastic consequences.

The strategy of the U.S. government involved negotiations, a blatant display of armed force, and the bombardment of the Branch Davidian compound with loud noise and music. Attempts at negotiations failed because law enforcement didn’t recognize the depth of the Davidian faith. To the Davidians, these abrasive and condescending tactics were provocative, not intimidating, and further supported their beliefs that they were confronting an evil force. This enhanced their resolve and strengthened their convictions. In short, the strategies exercised by U.S. law enforcement during the Branch Davidian standoff only enflamed the problem to a devastating degree, as exemplified in the standoff’s infamous resolution.

When in conflict with millenarians, Barkun advises government officials to take the religious beliefs of such groups seriously, lest they underestimate the strength of millennialists’ belief and drive them to fully realize their self-induced fate. Barkun stresses the importance of understanding the nature of extreme religious belief from the perspective of the believer, as opposed to relying on divisive and misleading labels.

It is my opinion that the Branch Davidian standoff represents a microcosm for America’s current “War on Terrorism.” The euphemistic and misleading term “terrorist” is analogous to the label “cult” in more ways than one. In both arenas of social conflict, one can find the presence of fundamentalist, or absolutist thinking, coupled with a fervent devotion to supernatural ideals and the propensity of the individual to die in the name of religious faith. Perhaps the standoff in Waco was foretelling of future conflicts between subjective realities. In this way, the policy makers and law enforcement officials would be wise to re-examine the intense devotion of faith sustained by the Mujahideen holy warriors and the Muslim world which supports them, least another standoff end in an unimaginable fire.

I greatly appreciated Barkun’s article. I lived in Waco for a time, and I have visited the ruins of the Branch Davidian compound on several occasions. I saw the charred bus, the broken rubble, and the personal artifacts of lives long lost. I vividly remember a pile of debris heaping with trash, fabrics, and shoes. I remember seeing children’s’ clothing poking through the haphazard junk pile. I remember the questions that flooded my mind as I pondered what had taken place there. Barkun helps answer many of those questions. He writes with a strong conviction that we should learn from the mistakes made in the Branch Davidian standoff. His argument that we should avoid the pitfalls of label-think and understand the nature of divergent perspectives when resolving conflict is directly applicable to the West’s conflict with militant Islam. Americans would do well to read Barkun’s assessment of the Branch Davidian standoff.