I have an occasional series on over-zealous US law enforcement. The worst example of this is, of course, Waco. Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker doesn't do much of his Gladwell thing on us (and when he does, it's not that convincing in this piece), he just tells the story by reference to one of the believers' memoirs here.
It started when "some eighty armed agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms raided the Mount Carmel community, in an effort to serve a search and arrest warrant on Koresh, on suspicion of violating federal firearms rules." That is to say, it started very badly, and not because of the Branch Davidians. The Feds could have served the warrant on him when we went into town, which is something he did. And what was the evidence for the firearms violations? Well, an undercover agent had infiltrated the group to look for it - and found no evidence.
This is what happened then. "“I want you all to go back to your rooms and stay calm,” Doyle recalls Koresh saying, as federal agents descended on Mount Carmel. Doyle goes on, “I could hear David’s steps going down the hall toward the front door. . . . Then all of a sudden I heard David say: ‘Hey, wait a minute! There are women and children in here!’ Then all hell broke loose—just a barrage of shots from outside coming in. It sounded like a bloodbath.”" Sounded like - and it was.
So, in a reaction to this, "Outside the Mount Carmel complex, the F.B.I. assembled what has been called probably the largest military force ever gathered against a civilian suspect in American history: ten Bradley tanks, two Abrams tanks, four combat-engineering vehicles, six hundred and sixty-eight agents in addition to six U.S. Customs officers, fifteen U.S. Army personnel, thirteen members of the Texas National Guard, thirty-one Texas Rangers, a hundred and thirty-one officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety, seventeen from the McLennan County sheriff’s office, and eighteen Waco police, for a total of eight hundred and ninety-nine people."
As we know, it all ended even more badly. "Koresh and seventy-three others perished, including twenty-five children." Wikipedia tells me that one of the women was pregnant. I think the guys with the tanks, the CS canisters and the demolition equipment got off more lightly than the children.
My sympathy is always for the underdog, and people on the receiving end of that kind of effort are definitely the underdogs. But they weren't bad underdogs either. Gladwell describes them as "the sort whose idea of a good evening’s fun was a six-hour Bible study wrestling with a tricky passage of Revelation", which might be accurate. It's a little sneery, but makes it clear that they weren't necessarily the sort of people who should be on the receiving end of an army assault. They weren't your classic cult weirdos: "The Branch Davidians ... engaged freely and happily with the world around them. Doyle went to California periodically to work for an audiotape-dubbing company and make money. Other Davidians started small businesses around Waco. Wayne Martin, a prominent member of the community, was a Harvard Law School graduate with a legal practice in town."
Moreover, when they found out about the agent who infiltrated them, they were nice to him. The FBI, in the 'negotiations' before the final assault, tried to goad the Branch Davidians with the infiltrator. This was the response from the deputy to Koresh "I realize that. . . . [But], still, we love people so much, you give them the opportunity. . . . Even if it’s one out of a million, even if it’s that, whatever it might be, he’s still a person that was made, created by an authority above himself and we loved the guy. I mean . . . we spent enough time with him where we really do appreciate the man’s character and personality."