The Dallas Morning News
Defining `cult' is no easy task, experts say
Other religious groups may also share certain traits
A charismatic young man comes out of nowhere to preach a gospel that is heretical and scandalous, according to the established doctrines of the day.
He asks his friends to give up all they have to follow him: home, family, worldly goods. For his sake, they endure privation, ridicule, even persecution.
Some ultimately die for refusing to renounce their beliefs.
Those words describe David Koresh -- as well as the man whose reincarnation he sometimes claims to be, Jesus Christ.
The similarity of their experiences illustrates how hard it can be to separate the spiritual wheat from the chaff -- a bona fide religious movement from what is popularly called a cult.
"It's not an easy issue,' says Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford University psychologist. "There are no clear-cut edges.'
It's often said that you can tell a cult by whether it exercises mind control over its adherents. But Dr. Zimbardo, who teaches a course on mind control, says even that is no litmus test.
"All religions want to control your mind,' he says. "They all say: "You have to believe our way.' '
To some scholars, such philosophical niceties merely ignore the practical reality that some -- they would say many -- people do suffer at the hands of what they call cults.
"Cults manipulate people in a special way,' says Dr. Margaret Singer, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. "They court people to get them in, but once they're in, they're told that they are sinful and only the leader is pure.'
Often, that theology is promoted expressly to create "an opportunity for the leader to exploit and abuse the members,' says Dr. Richard Ofshe, a Berkeley sociologist and co-author of a Pulitzer-Prize-winning expose of the California therapy cult Synanon.
In Dr. Ofshe's view, misplaced scruples about religious freedom do grievous harm by fostering "the inability of society to protect people from that type of abuse.'
However, Dr. Zimbardo says that to fully understand what he calls "totalistic groups,' you must consider what they promise to followers as well as what they take away.
Those benefits, not always readily available in the outside world, include status, a place and a function, security, friendship, acceptance and a leader who becomes a substitute parent.
It's a trade, Dr. Zimbardo says: "Freedom for security -- and for lots of people that's a very attractive deal.'
"A cult that didn't become corrupted would be very much like the ideal family -- or, if it was larger, the ideal community,' says the pyschologist, who calls himself "neither pro- nor anti-cult.'
The appeal of cults has proved not only universal but also timeless.
Throughout the ages, new sects have coalesced around magnetic personalities and have rejected the culture that spawned them, says Dean Kelley, a semi-retired counselor on religious freedom for the National Council of Churches.
In many respects, he says, even the Branch Davidians are no different from thousands of fledgling religious movements all over the world.
"Their activities, their views, their willingness to make large sacrifices, even including the sacrifice of their lives, is typical,' says Mr. Kelley.
And although few religious sects amass military-style arsenals, most view the outside world with trepidation if not hostility -- a feeling that the world frequently reciprocates. Especially in the aftermath of events such as those at Mount Carmel, the public is likely to react with fascination and horror to anything that resembles a cult.
"Almost always, the unknown other strikes us as menacing,' says Dr. Martin E. Marty, a professor of church history at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Consequently, Mr. Kelley says, many harmless groups are "victimized by widespread hysteria.'
The source of much of that hysteria, in the eyes of Mr. Kelley and like-minded civil libertarians, is the Cult Awareness Network, a national organization based in Chicago. Mr. Kelley calls the network "the anti-cult cult.'
Cynthia Kisser, the network's executive director, acknowledges that "there is a lot of room for philosophical debate about the role of a group like ours,' which collects and disseminates information about suspected cults.
But she says the Cult Awareness Network never criticizes a group merely for its beliefs, no matter how strange. For a group to qualify as a cult in the network's eyes, she says, there must be evidence that it is harming its members, either physically, mentally, emotionally or financially.
"When influence techniques are used with deceptive means, that becomes cultic,' she says.
At the street level, where Ms. Kisser's group operates, much of the debate centers on the practice of "deprogramming,' trying to extract members from so-called cults either through persuasion or, in extreme cases, coercion.
Critics of the practice tell horror stories of people kidnapped at the behest of their families, imprisoned, threatened and even physically abused until they renounce their former beliefs. And they lay the blame at the network's feet.
"The stories from survivors are awful,' says Susan Taylor, a volunteer for the Deprogramming Survivors Network who is also a member of the Church of Scientology. "There are ways of resolving family problems (resulting from cult membership) without violence.
"We only object to illegal acts such as kidnapping or holding someone against their will.'
Ms. Taylor, who has not herself undergone a deprogramming, describes the Deprogramming Survivors Network as an informal association of "a few dozen' people. One of the group's activities is to send out news releases castigating the Cult Awareness Network, described in one recent release as "a cult of low-level street thugs, kidnappers and mental rapists.'
Ms. Kisser says her organization, which fielded more than 16,000 calls last year, employs no professional deprogrammers and does not "support or condone involuntary deprogramming.'
She says people affiliated with the Cult Awareness Network do participate in voluntary meetings at which cult members are given information about the groups they have joined and about the type of mind-control techniques the network believes cult members are routinely subjected to.
The group sometimes provides referrals to professional deprogrammers, but Ms. Kisser says the network does not guarantee them or their methods.
Rick Ross, a professional deprogrammer from Phoenix, says very few of his cases involve tricking people into a meeting or holding them against their will. He has become increasingly wary of such tactics, he says, as legal actions against deprogrammers have become common.
But he says that in extreme, "life-and-death' situations, coercive deprogramming is acceptable to protect a cult member from himself or herself. As examples he cites a young man who was planning to bomb an abortion clinic and a young woman who was preparing to be sterilized at the behest of her church.
"Mind control eliminates the ability to make critical decisions,' he says. "A cult member loses the ability to function as an autonomous person.'
However, others say cries of "mind control' and "brainwashing' go up whenever a person joins a group his family or society disapproves of.
"The behavior of the members of groups like this is more simply explained by conversion rather than mind control,' says Mr. Kelley.
"Many groups are psychologically intense but physically benign,' says Dr. Marty.
Jennifer Jacobs, a computer consultant from the San Francisco area, says her parents hired deprogrammers to kidnap her after they were told lies about the Buddhist group she joined while in college.
She says the deprogrammers held her for 11 days in a seedy hotel, berating and humiliating her -- to no avail. She still belongs to the Buddhist group, which her parents continue to denigrate.
"They can't accept that I'm an independent, healthy young woman, and I'm not doing what they want,' she says.
The Branch Davidian standoff has provoked a new round of attacks on the Cult Awareness Network by its adversaries.
One group, the Friends of Freedom, has accused the Cult Awareness Network and Mr. Ross of instigating the mayhem at Mount Carmel.
".(T)he deaths and wounding of agents and sect members is the direct responsibility of the very experts that are now reaping admiration for their involvement,' says a news release from the group, which is headed by Dr. George Robertson, described in the release as a "nationally known expert on religious freedom.'
Despite repeated phone calls, Dr. Robertson could not be reached for comment. Published reports have linked him to a fundamentalist Christian sect that was ordered to return millions of dollars to a wealthy woman after a court determined that it had exerted undue influence over her.
Mr. Ross says he did give federal investigators information about Mr. Koresh's group. He says he gleaned that information, including knowledge about the sect's arsenal, from a Branch Davidian he deprogrammed last year.
But he says it's "preposterous' to think that his information alone caused the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to send scores of heavily armed agents against Mount Carmel.
Ms. Kisser is equally scornful. "They are claiming we have enough influence over the ATF to get them to launch a multimillion-dollar tactical operation,' she says.
ATF spokesman Sharon Wheeler declined to comment on whether Mr. Ross supplied information to those planning the Feb. 28 raid. She said, however, that the agency had "many, many sources over the eight or nine months of this investigation.'
Despite widespread criticism of the way the raid was carried out, few are saying openly that the Branch Davidians should not be brought to account if they have broken the law.
The problem, many scholars say, is that in a free society, it is almost impossible to intervene to prevent such groups from committing crimes.
Some would disagree. Dr. Ofshe, for one, says dangerous groups usually send out signals long before they do serious harm.
Such groups usually go unchecked, he says, because authorities are reluctant to prosecute them for fear of being branded religious bigots.
Also, he says, "The willingness of mainstream religious groups to support claims of religious persecution protects these groups.'
But other scholars say tragedies such as Mount Carmel may be a rare but inevitable consequence of our religious freedom.
"I don't know any way it's preventable,' says Dr. Marty. "We know a crazy when we see one, but we don't know what we're seeing until it's too late.
"That sounds unsatisfying, but that's the price we pay.'
After all, Dr. Marty says, Christ and every other major religious visionary have made people intensely uncomfortable during their lifetimes. Only the passage of 2,000 years has made Jesus seem conventional and safe.
Says Dr. Marty, "He's a lot easier to take once he's in stained glass.'
The Dallas Morning News
Agents warn of tighter security after infiltrations of cult compound
WACO -- There was news of movement in the Branch Davidian standoff Saturday -- but the movement was in the wrong direction.
An unidentified person sneaked into the besieged compound Friday night, the second person to do so, said FBI spokesman Bob Ricks.
On Saturday, in a briefing that seemed to offer no hope for a resolution to the monthlong impasse, Agent Ricks conceded that it is "somewhat embarrassing' that two people apparently have penetrated the government's net. He said authorities will tighten security around the compound's perimeter.
For other potential infiltrators, he had a grim warning. Agent Ricks said that if government agents detect a person within the perimeter, and that person is armed, "we will take whatever action is necessary to neutralize them.'
Agent Ricks continued to hammer at cult leader David Koresh, who has not spoken directly to negotiators since Wednesday night. In the past, Mr. Koresh has cut all communications with federal officials from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, the cult's Sabbath.
"It does not appear that he cares about human life, except his own,' Agent Ricks said, adding that negotiators are growing increasingly worried about the health and safety of the 17 children believed to still be inside the cult home.
"David Koresh treats women and children as expendable items.'
"He looks for the lonely, the lost, the unloved, the innocent,' Agent Ricks said. "These are the people he has brought into his fold, who will do anything that he orders them to do.'
Also Saturday, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said for the first time publicly that its agents suspected the compound may have held a methamphetamine laboratory.
The Dallas Morning News reported last week that state officials said ATF agents cited the drug allegations in seeking use of three Texas National Guard helicopters for the abortive raid Feb. 28.
A spokesman for Gov. Ann Richards said a review of federal guidelines indicated that the only way the Guard could have assisted in the ATF investigation was that evidence indicated illegal drugs were involved.
ATF spokesman David Troy said agents learned late in their nine-month investigation of the Branch Davidians that 11 people in the compound had histories of possessing or selling illegal drugs. In addition, testimony in a trial in Michigan alleged that Mr. Koresh was running a speed lab.
Aerial photos by an infrared camera revealed a "hot spot' in the compound consistent with the presence of such a lab, Agent Troy said.
Agent Troy said the ATF believed that the sect might be selling drugs to finance its arms purchases, which were the primary focus of the government investigation.
ATF agents stormed the compound, trying to serve arrest and search warrants for weapons violations. They were met with gunfire, and four ATF agents and an undetermined number of cult members died.
Fourteen adults and 21 children have left the group since the standoff began. On Wednesday, 24-year-old Louis Anthony Alaniz of Houston, described by his mother as a "religious fanatic,' walked past scores of armed agents, armored vehicles and tanks into the sect's headquarters.
The latest person crawled up to the compound Friday night, said a federal official who asked not to be identified. "We don't know who it is. We're not communicating with them right now,' the official said Saturday afternoon.
Mr. Alaniz apparently took a horse from a nearby farm and rode it around the federal perimeter surrounding the compound to find an entry route before running to its buildings, the official said.
Agent Ricks said Saturday that anyone successfully entering the compound may face criminal charges once the siege ends.
Meanwhile, new charges -- conspiracy to kill armed agents -- were filed Friday night against Kathryn Schroeder, who has been held as a material witness since leaving the compound March 12. She had expected to be freed early this week under an order from U.S. District Judge Walter Smith.
Agent Troy said investigators do not know exactly what role Ms. Schroeder, 30, played in the firefight. A former Air Force sergeant, her military experience included training as a sharpshooter, according to testimony in a recent detention hearing.
On another issue, Agent Troy again defended the ATF against criticism from outside tactical experts that the agency botched the original raid.
He rejected a suggestion that some of the agents involved in the raid were not adequately prepared or fired improperly during the chaotic gunfight.
"That is not a correct statement,' he said. "We don't feel we had anyone who didn't know what to do.'
Debriefings after the raid indicated that some agents never fired during the 45-minute melee because they could not get clear sights of their targets. That, he said, proved that all agents had acted precisely as they had been trained.
Their conduct was "an outstanding display of courage,' he said. "We are very proud of our people. Their training showed through.'
According to a report in Newsweek magazine to be released Monday, an unnamed federal source believes there is evidence to support a theory that several agents were wounded or killed by "friendly fire.'
ATF spokeswoman Sharon Wheeler said Saturday that the report "is absolutely not true.'
And Jack Killorin, an ATF spokesman in Washington, said an ongoing Texas Rangers' investigation of how the agents died or were wounded has produced "absolutely no information that would substantiate any friendly or accidental fire injuries.'
What happened may not be fully determined until after investigators can examine the bullet-riddled compound, but "at this point in time, to make such an allegation would have to be characterized as smarmy,' he said.
Armed clash feared
Agent Ricks continued to evoke hopes that Mr. Koresh will leave his lair peacefully.
But he said, "We are extremely worried,' reiterating negotiators' fears that Mr. Koresh's refusal to cooperate will culminate in an armed conflagration between his followers and government forces.
"We believe David Koresh would consider it a subtantial achievement to get a large number of his people killed,' Agent Ricks said.
In order to secure Mr. Koresh's surrender, he said, "we are required to prove that David is not Christ -- which is an impossible task. . . . When (you believe) you're God, it's very difficult to have someone come forward and prove you're not God.'
Floodlights and loud noises assailed the compound Friday night and Saturday. Also Saturday, federal agents used tanks to push cars, a bus and other debris from the compound.
Mr. Koresh's followers responded with a new banner but quickly pulled it back inside before it could be read.
Meanwhile, a Salvation Army officer charged with the custody of two Branch Davidians called them "delightful people to visit with.'
Rita Riddle, 35, and Gladys Ottman, 67, who left the compound March 21, are under house arrest at a halfway house the charitable group runs under a contract from the federal prison system.
"They're sweet ladies,' said Janet Harrison, the prerelease administrator at the facility. "They've got a couple of the other residents cornered up there now, doing their Bible studies.'
Staff writers Lee Hancock and John Yearwood contributed to this report.