As a tribute to Klosterman, I’m going to start this blog entry with a long, rambling preface with dubious connections to the topic at hand.
ALL THE CRAZY
In my junior year of college, I signed up for a university research study for a drug called Milacemide, which was being studied to see if it could be used as an antidepressant. I saw an ad for it in the local alternative weekly, and figured what the hell. I was depressed, although probably not any more so than usual — depression for me is more or less seasonal and perennial, like allergies. But on top of the depression, I’d been concerned about my mental health because of some unrelated “issues” I’d been experiencing that year.
For example, one night I was having dinner in the Union South cafeteria. As I ate my enchilada casserole and watched the CBS Evening News on the dining room TV, I suddenly heard Dan Rather’s voice. Which wouldn’t have been so strange, since he was on TV at the time, except that in addition to his on-air voice, he was also whispering directly into my left ear. What Dan Rather said to me, his voice soft and menacing, while his regular, authoritative TV voice reported the day’s news to the rest of the world, was this:
“Fuck youuuu…fuck youuuuu.”
He said this over and over, for about a minute. Profoundly weirded out, I wolfed down the rest of my dinner and got the hell out of there. Fortunately, this never happened again, but ever since I’ve been unable to hear Dan Rather’s voice without breaking into a cold sweat.
At around the same time, I was also wrestling with the question of whether or not I had the ability to project my thoughts into other people’s minds. The thought popped randomly into my mind one day, and I couldn’t shake it. I began to covertly observe everyone I interacted with, or who sat near me in class, to see if they showed any reaction when I directed my thoughts at them. Many of them did in fact behave a little strangely around me — for reasons I’m sure had nothing to do with the fact that I was covertly observing them — and I became semi-convinced that my thoughts really were being beamed out of my head and into the minds of people in my vicinity.
Of course, I couldn’t be positive, since no one actually said anything to me, and since the idea was completely batshit insane in the first place. So I determined to put the question to the test. Leaving Union South one day, I saw a girl standing on the sidewalk, waiting for a bus. I sat down on the steps outside the entrance, directly behind her, and commenced hurling insults at her with my mind. After about a half minute of silently, vehemently denigrating her appearance, personality, and intelligence, I was stunned when the girl turned around and looked at me, with a strange expression on her face. I couldn’t believe it — had I actually caused this girl to turn around, with my thoughts alone, without having made any audible sound?
Or…perhaps it wasn’t that at all. Perhaps, without realizing it, I had in fact spoken my thoughts out loud. I hadn’t been aware of my lips moving or sound coming out of my mouth, but people had pointed out my entire life that I often unconsciously moved my lips when thinking hard. If it had indeed been the case, how fucking scary crazy must I have looked to this poor young woman — some creepy stranger berating her out of nowhere at a bus stop. And what was crazier — believing I was some kind of telepathic thought-broadcasting antenna, or the possibility that I was speaking my thoughts out loud without realizing it?
In retrospect, given that I wasn’t using PCP or any other mind-altering drugs at the time, I probably should have mentioned this stuff when I signed up for the study.
Even though I’d been depressed most of my life, and as a child exhibited antisocial, occasionally violent behavior, this clinical study was my first real exposure to the mental health profession. If I’d been born a few decades later, in more enlightened times, I probably would have been identified as mentally ill and put into therapy by the time I was five. But it was the early 70s, and I’m pretty sure the idea of taking me to a shrink never even occurred to my parents. 1
I had been interested in psychology from early childhood. In the summer after fourth grade, my parents bought me the Great Books of the Western World collection, in the optimistic hope that their ten-year-old kid would get hooked on the fifth century Greek tragedies of Aeschylus. To what must have been their pleasant surprise, I actually did read a few of the Great Books (making me the only North American child ever to do so). The only one that really caught fire in my head, though, was the Sigmund Freud volume, a “best of” sampler of his major works. I read the shit out of that book — cover to cover and multiple times. That and Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel were my go-to reading matter during my elementary years.
During the course of the study, which required me to make twice-weekly trips to the university hospital to replenish my meds and attend counseling sessions with one of the study’s psychologists, I discovered the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. Most people who’ve experienced or studied up on mental illnesses are probably familiar with this book. Published by the American Psychiatric Association, it’s a standard reference in the mental health field, a catalog of officially recognized mental disorders, along with criteria for diagnosis.
For someone with an enthusiastic interest in psychology, but without any formal education on the subject, finding this book was like an aspiring chef discovering Larousse Gastronomique. During my clinic visits, I dove into the copy in the waiting room every chance I could get, and eventually started taking the long trek out to the hospital on non-study days, just to hang out in the medical library and work my way systematically through the whole thing. (These trips, incidentally, were in lieu of attending classes, which I was getting C’s and D’s in because I was too busy learning about mental problems to bother with my actual paid-for, contributing-to-my-degree learning.)
What blew my mind about the DSM is how totally comprehensive it was. It was all here — all the crazy. Virtually every possible way that human beings can be fucked up in the head, from depression to schizophrenia to the compulsion to rub your crotch against strangers’ rear ends on the subway, was represented in these pages in precise clinical detail, along with the diagnostic criteria for each disorder. It was like a Field Guide to North American Lunatics combined with a Troubleshooting and Repair Manual for the Mind.
The second most fun thing about the book — the first being the section on sexual fetishes, of course — was figuring out how many personality disorders I could potentially qualify for. Schizoid personality disorder? Maybe. Schizotypal personality disorder? Probably! Antisocial personality disorder? Sure, why not! Which points to one of the most common criticisms of the DSM (and mental health diagnoses in general): there is no human being who doesn’t have at least one disorder listed in this book, to some degree. So does that mean everyone’s crazy?
Well, yes, obviously. But the DSM makes it clear that, while everyone might be fucked up in one way or another, there’s a difference between “normal” fucked up and “abnormal” fucked up. A little shy and introverted? Normal fucked up. Haven’t left your apartment in three years and sleeping on tied-up bundles of newspapers with your eighteen cats? Abnormal fucked up.
For mental health professionals, distinguishing normal from abnormal mental conditions is a complex and often controversial process. For non-professionals, though, it usually gets simplified down to two basic points of view. (I’m generalizing of course, but broadly speaking I think this is true.)
One point of view defines mental disorder as behavior severe enough to significantly affect their ability to function in society. The mentally ill person may have difficulty getting or holding down a job. If they have a job, they may fuck up in some dramatic way, or behave in a way that disrupts the workplace. They cannot live self-sufficiently and depend on family or government assistance. They behave in a way that hurts themselves or other people.
The other point of view is even simpler: to be mentally ill is to be weird enough to disturb society’s sense of propriety.
HOW NOT TO BE BATSHIT INSANE
It is difficult for me to write objectively about Koresh. It’s difficult because I cannot see any framework where he and his followers were not murdered by the U.S. government (or—in the absolute best-case scenario—driven to commit mass suicide).
On the morning of February 28, 1993, an 80-vehicle convoy of ATF agents descended on a ranch about nine miles outside of Waco, Texas. They were there to execute a search warrant on the Mount Carmel Center, which was owned and inhabited by a breakaway sect of Branch Davidians, a Christian religious group that was itself a breakaway sect of Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, who were a breakaway sect of Seventh-day Adventists.
The ATF agents wanted to search the Branch Davidians’ commune for two reasons: they had heard reports that children of the Branch Davidians were being abused, and they suspected the group was stockpiling illegal firearms. Mostly, though, what the ATF wanted was to arrest the commune’s religious leader, a man named David Koresh.
Specifically, the ATF believed Koresh, in addition to buying and selling illegal assault weapons and weapon parts, was physically abusing children in the commune, and that he was also having sexual intercourse with underage girls. More generally, the ATF believed Koresh was batshit insane.
Was David Koresh batshit insane? Probably, or at least to the extent that anyone who believes he’s a descendant of King David and a prophet who has unlocked the mysteries of the Seven Seals of the Book of Revelation and The Lamb of God destined to open the Seals during the imminent Apocalypse, and who believes himself divinely tasked with siring 24 children who will become the ruling elders of the millennium following the Apocalypse, can be.
I realize Koresh was fucking crazy. I’m not denying it. He was fucking crazy. Though the child-molestation stuff has never been verified, I don’t doubt it. The fact that he believed he had to sire twenty-four kids so that they could rule the world seems like a creative way for a psycho to meet girls. Anyone who reads every line of the Bible as non-metaphoric text has limited credibility. So I realize he was fucking crazy. But our government does not typically kill people for being crazy.
Most people who were around at the time probably have at least a vague memory of what happened when the ATF raided the Branch Davidian commune. I don’t know if the word “shitstorm” existed in common parlance in 1993, but if it had, it would certainly be the way to describe the raid. It’s unclear who fired the first shots, but once shooting started, the situation escalated rapidly. At the end of the day, four ATF agents and six Davidians were dead.
This of course brought down the full fury of the federal government. The FBI took over command and declared the whole thing a hostage situation (although who exactly was being held hostage is unclear, since the Davidians were free to come and go as they pleased). 2 The ranch’s phone lines, power, and water were shut off. Bradley fighting vehicles and US Army tanks were brought in. In order to wear down the Davidians with sleep deprivation, the FBI blasted unbearably loud noises at the house — including the sound of rabbits being slaughtered, which I’ve never heard, but imagine to sound sort of like the last half hour of Watership Down.
Despite all this, the Davidians managed to hold out for 51 days, drinking rainwater and eating MREs, until April 19th, when Attorney General Janet Reno gave the go-ahead to make a final assault on the commune. For hours, tanks pumped tear gas into the building as feds and Davidians traded gunfire. At some point, several fires started — and the question of who started them is a hugely contentious issue that will probably never be conclusively resolved — and spread to consume the entire building.
When the assault was over, 76 Davidians were dead. Many were shot — by federal agents, other Davidians (as mercy killings, once they realized they were hopelessly trapped), and themselves. Many died of smoke inhalation, or poisoning from hydrogen cyanide gas formed by the heating of the tear gas that had saturated the building. At least twelve of the dead were children under the age of five.
You may have noticed that I’m not using the word “compound” to describe the Davidians’ ranch, although it was exclusively described as such by the media and government and pretty much everyone involved in the situation except the Davidians themselves. There’s nothing necessarily inaccurate about that word, which is commonly defined as a group of buildings within an enclosure, and it’s not necessarily pejorative — the buildings that comprise the Camp David presidential retreat are routinely referred to as a “compound,” as is the Kennedy family “compound” in Hyannis Port.
But no one with any sensitivity to the rhetorical effects of words who keeps up with current events can hear this word without hearing the subtle allusion to its military usage, as a fortification against outside attack. Compound, even in more benign applications, connotes a military, defensive purpose. (One imagines that the Camp David and Kennedy compounds employ that connotation deliberately, for the benefit of anyone who might be thinking about jumping the walls of these grounds.)
Mount Carmel Center, where the Davidians lived, was decidedly not a fortress. For the decades that these people lived here, at peace with their neighbors, it was simply the ranch where they lived and worked. While the living quarters were expansive, in any other context no one would see them as anything more ominous than a residential complex. It didn’t become a “compound” until the Davidians went from being weird but mostly harmless fringe Christians to dangerous religious extremists.
If you hear “Branch Davidian compound,” what picture does it evoke of the people inside? Is it different from what you see when you hear “Branch Davidian housing complex”?
If you hear “the Branch Davidian residential dormitory was allowed to burn to the ground with nearly a hundred men, women, and children trapped inside,” does it give you a different emotional sense of what happened than “the Branch Davidian compound was allowed to burn to the ground with nearly a hundred armed extremists trapped inside”?
If your first exposure to the Branch Davidians had been news reports about “a Christian fundamentalist church headquartered outside of Waco, Texas, whose leader was under suspicion of statutory rape and child abuse,” and the next thing you heard was that, in the process of apprehending this leader, the federal government had blockaded the church grounds while it burned to the ground, allowing everyone inside, including the children — who were presumably this leader’s victims — to horribly perish, would you shrug off the event? Or would you want to know exactly how things went from point A to point B?
What Koresh did accept (but failed to fully grasp) was that there is something called “living mainstream,” and that all mainstream livers are unyielding about what that concept is supposed to denote. Anyone who chooses to live in a manner that contradicts this concept is never going to get sympathy from anyone. This is not to say that average people will want you to die for having radical views, nor does it mean that living in a fucked-up compound with fifteen wives is merely “different” than living in a three-bedroom house in suburban Houston. But it does mean that if the government needlessly decides to attack your home with tanks, the rest of the world is going to assume you must have deserved it.
Twenty years later, I don’t think there’s anything controversial about calling the siege a total fiasco on the part of the U.S. government. Even the government admitted that they fucked up, although they would never acknowledge the extent to which they covered up their tragic errors and lapses of judgement. (Anyone interested in how the actual events and evidence differ from the official report can check out the numerous documentaries and web resources out there on the topic — I couldn’t even begin to address it without veering this blog post hopelessly astray.)
My focus here — and Klosterman’s — is on the fact that government agencies, aided by a cooperative media, packaged the Branch Davidians as dangerous, rogue cultists who needed to be dealt with, up to and including total annihilation. Most people — those who who still remember the Branch Davidians — recall them as a bunch of heavily-armed apocalyptic religious lunatics, led by a pedophile with messianic delusions. This memory is typically followed by a vague sense of having been assured that these people were unstable fanatics who posed an imminent threat to the community.
I don’t think any rational observer would deny that Koresh and his followers held religious beliefs that were far enough outside the norm to be considered, at best, extremely weird. Or that the child abuse and statutory rape allegations against Koresh were — although never actually supported by hard evidence — serious enough to merit investigation. These were not normal people.
They were, however, people who, for years, got along just fine with their neighbors in Waco. They regularly went into town to shop and conduct business, and were generally considered decent folk, albeit folk with very odd beliefs. And for a stronghold of Old Testament Christianity like Waco, they weren’t even really all that far out on the fringe.
One of the rationales the government offered for destroying the Davidians was that they were stockpiling weapons. Which was true: they “stockpiled” guns — in the sense that gun store owners “stockpile” guns — to sell and trade, legally, at gun shows, which is how they made most of their income.
In most respects, they weren’t that different from most people in that part of Texas: they owned, bought, and sold guns, were Biblical literalists, had very little truck with the federal government, and approved of corporal punishment. And when the government decided that these people needed getting rid of, they suddently became dangerous gun-toting separatist apocalyptic cultists who were physically abusing their children.
If he destroyed himself and his followers, he did so because life convinced him that he was right about everything (and that this event was supposed to happen).
So, let’s say that the government is right, and the fires in the Branch Davidian “compound” were started by Koresh himself, or his followers on his orders. Let’s ignore the question of why the FBI chose to have tanks shoot round after round of CS tear gas — which is only supposed to be used outdoors, because when used in enclosed buildings it can release deadly hydrogen cyanide — into a building with children too small to wear gas masks, running through a 48-hour supply of gas in six hours.
Let’s ignore the troubling question of why the FBI prevented fire trucks from entering the perimeter once the buildings — saturated with CS — were aflame. Let’s even ignore the basic question of why the federal government chose to conduct a large-scale military assault on the Davidians in order to arrest one man, when they could have nabbed Koresh during any of the several times a week he drove into Waco alone.
Instead, let’s look at what happened when the government decided Koresh was a dangerous, paranoid lunatic who was a danger to himself and his followers. First, they accused the Davidians of trafficking in illegal firearms. When that turned out to be untrue, they accused the Davidians of illegally converting firearms into automatic machine guns, based on “suspicious” parts found in a UPS package. They found no evidence that this was actually happening.
So when the ATF failed to dig up any solid evidence against the Davidians, and after the Davidians invited them to inspect their firearms to verify their legality, an offer the ATF declined, and insisted that whatever weapons they owned that they weren’t selling were intended to defend against a possible attack by George Roden — the former Branch Davidian leader who had in 1987 engaged in a gun battle with Koresh and his followers, escaped from an institution for the criminally insane (later recaptured), and had reportedly threatened the Davidians, saying “I’m not going to come back with BB guns” — the government decided, based on, literally, no more than a vaporous conviction that these wackos must be up to something, showed up at Mount Carmel Center in force, with guns drawn.
(The accusations some critics make, that the federal government escalated the Davidian situation unnecessarily in order to achieve political ends, while misleading the public into believing that there was actual justification for this display of aggression, tends to gain some credibility when one considers that the dynamic of this ramp-up pretty eerily matches the actions of the United States in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Just sayin’.)
Are you truly paranoid, if “they” turn out to be actual persons who are, demonstrably, actually out to get you?
Are you crazy for believing that the destruction of the world in fire is imminent, when an army has in fact surrounded the center of your world, prepared to destroy you with fire?
The delusions I suffered as a college student turned out to be bullshit. 3 Today, I’m a reasonably functional member of society and, while I do suffer chronic depression, and some people undoubtedly consider me a little weird, I don’t think anyone who knows me even casually would consider me dangerously mentally ill. Meanwhile, Koresh was a paranoid lunatic who thought people were out to get him, and believed the end of the world was right around the corner.
Given the final results, though, how much crazier is Koresh than I was, when I heard Dan Rather telling me to get fucked? As far as I know, Dan Rather doesn’t bear me any ill will (unless, I suppose, he suspects me of being the “Kenneth, what is the frequency” guy). I’m also pretty sure I can’t project my thoughts into people’s minds. Meanwhile, Koresh’s fear that the government was an agent of Satan out to destroy him…turned out, actually, to be largely justified.
I could almost — maybe not quite, but darn near — conclude that, really, the critical advantage I have over someone like Koresh is that I’m just too boring and mainstream to arouse anyone’s suspicions.
No matter what really happened inside Mount Carmel Center, one fact that’s difficult to dispute is that most people were ready to believe the worst about David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, because
(a) they held extremely unconventional views and lived outside the mainstream of society, which already defined them as crazy from most people’s perspectives;
(b) unlike some other religious groups with odd notions about how people should live and/or marry, they lacked the wealth to buy themselves some PR clout and avoid being labeled a “cult”;
(c) the government and media made it extremely easy for the public to credit the worst accusations leveled against the group, no matter who was making them or what the evidence actually was, by framing the Davidians in the worst possible light, in ways obvious and subtle.
The world was ending. It was. It was ending in dissonance and it was ending in fire, and the vocals would be low in the mix. Besides, there is nothing worse than calling someone a cult leader. People like that don’t deserve to live.