Friday, April 11, 2008

Treating the Cultists Right

I read in my daily paper this morning that Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran, who organized last Saturday's raid on a compound used by a Fundamentalist Latter Day Saint group in El Dorado, TX, is coming under some fire for not having acted quickly enough against the cult. He argues that he and others were familiar with the group, had visited the compound (called the YFZ ranch) more than a few times over the years, even had an informant that had kept him aware of the group's various activities. They were aware of the plural marriages and other unseemly practices, and had suspicions of worse. But until a specific allegation--a self-identified 16-year-old girl calling into a family-violence shelter, speaking of forced marriages, sexual abuse, and rape--had been received, they were unwilling to act. "[T]his is the United States," Doran said. "We are going to respect them. We're not going to violate their civil rights until we get an outcry."

Exactly correct. I'm glad that they did it that way, and I'm glad that he said it. Not that this settles all the questions about the raid: as one of my fellow Mormon bloggers has documented over the past several days, there are very serious ethical and constitutional question about how this raid was conducted, and especially about the results (specifically, 419 children removed from the ranch and placed in state custody, some accompanied voluntarily by their mothers, but most having been taken from their parents; meanwhile, their 16-year-old who made the original complaint hasn't yet been identified and no arrests have been made); still, things could have gone the same way as the raid on the Branch Davidian compound did in Waco, TX, years ago, and that they didn't is something we should all be grateful for, Mormon and otherwise.

Why? Well, obviously because no one wants to see gunfire and flames and needless deaths, if they can at all be avoided. And also because, generally speaking, we all ought to hope that constitutional protections and procedures will be followed--and that when force is necessary, it will be used judicially and carefully. (The officers which Sheriff Doran led thankfully took four days to work their way through the ranch, rather than rushing violently through the job.) But most all because, frankly, I can see myself in those people--I have ancestors who found themselves facing the same impossible situation: an unpopular and suspected faith on the one hand, the barrel of a gun on the other.

I don't want to overstate things: of course there are numerous differences between the situations and accusations that characterized the lives of Mormons in the 19th-century, and those which characterized the Branch Davidians fifteen years ago, or the FLDS today. And to lay my communitarian, occasionally-interventionary cards on the table, I'm by no means convinced that the hostile treatment which Mormons like me received back then was always and in every way an unjustifiable or without ultimate benefits, to the Mormon community or the American community or both. But all that being said, stick with the facts. A charismatic and authoritarian leader? Check. Antinomian rhetoric and actions, sometimes bordering on violence? Check and check. Unconventional (to say the least) marriage arrangements? Check again. The truth is that, as abused and misleading a word as it may be, my faith began as a cult--an avowedly and (I think, at least, in every way that matters to personal virtue and behavior) thoroughly Christian cult, one which actually absorbed and reflected much of what was typical in Protestant evangelicalism and revivalism at the time...but still, a small group, a "cult," nonetheless. And not just any cult, but a cult that faced hostility and repression. Seeing as how I'm glad that the great majority of our popularly so-called cult-like practices are no longer part of the Mormon package (though admittedly some of them I still miss...), thus no longer something I need to decide upon when affirming my particular kind of Christian faith, you might think that I could disassociate myself from splinter groups and other borderline Christian cults without difficulty. But that's not the case--as another Mormon blogger, one of my compatriots at Times and Seasons points out, the parallels in how we and they were treated and talked about are just too clear to deny.

And to tell the truth, the Branch Davidians haunt me. Back in the spring of 1993 I watched that catastrophe play out on television, watched Jay Leno make jokes about "whacko" Texas, watched the U.S. government authorize a completely over-the-top invasion of the compound, complete with tanks and helicopters, all searching for stockpiled automatic rifles (oh, how rare in east Texas) and signs of sexual abuse (never proven, but then most everyone was a corpse by the time they were done), watched Attorney General Janet Reno talk about "talking responsibility" for the massacre but never apologize...and I burned. Forget the tangential historical or doctrinal ties, forget the Constitution: what about this astonishing ignorance of, this completely dismissive attitude towards, anything which is both religious and strange? Was there to be no acknowledgment of, no recognition of, a difference that just didn't fit into anyone's nicely pluralistic and secular categories? I guess not. Fortunately, someone far more eloquent and thoughtful than I was then (and am today, despite my best efforts to improve) burned with a similar indignation: Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic. His terrific essay from May of 1993, "The True Fire: In Defense of Spiritual Strangeness," isn't anywhere online so far as I know, so let me share a bit here:

The people who followed the deranged man who called himself David Koresh [the prophet-leader of the Branch Davidians] into the gray scrub of eastern Texas were, it is easy to say, losers: and of course they were losers. But they were not the kind of losers that liberals love. They, the Branch Davidians, described their position in the world too weirdly, in a way that put them beyond the reach of politics; and the Balm of Gilead is not a government program. They could not be engaged in their own terms, which were not, and must never be, the terms of a liberal order. Thus the saga of Waco was characterized, first and last, by an irreconcilability of meanings. One side experienced the siege secularly, the other side religiously. Both sides treated the other as if they lived in the same universe: the Feds treated the believers as criminals, for they could be nothing else, and the believers treated the Feds as the forces of Satan, for they could be nothing else. For fifty-one days, the misunderstanding was darkly comic. Then the comedy ended. And its ending only confirmed each side in its analysis, except that one side also died....

It is not Koresh that deserves to be defended, but the possibility of Koresh. The failure to understand the Branch Davidians was not just a tactical failure, which issued in an attack on people who were metaphysically gratified to be attacked, and not just a human failure, which issued in the astonishing inability of the president to utter a syllable of sorrow....The response of the American government to the catastrophe in Waco represents a misunderstanding of spiritual live, and American spirituality, and alienation in America....Can there be any doubt that the men and women of Ranch Apocalypse [the home base of the Branch Davidians, which was eventually burned to the ground during the siege of ATF agents and national guard troops which left seventy-two people dead] were wounded by, and afraid of, the world? Is it really so difficult to see how easy it is to get lost and lonely in America, to feel sapped of significance by its scale and speed, and housed, and diminished by its indifference? Must it really be said again that many of its citizens do not experience this country as a land of opportunity? In a state this huge and frantic, in a society this byzantine and technological, the self is no longer secure, and longer the certain master of its situations; and it is inevitable that there will be individuals who will wish to withdraw.

They have a right to withdraw, and they have the reason. Withdrawal from the world, moreover, is an old and respectable reaction to it. Alienation is one of the soul's great instruments. (It is amusing...to hear Christian friends puzzle over this Texan simulacrum of the desert.) Those who rule, of course, must be worldly people; when they hate the world, others suffer. But it is not asking too much, I think, to ask of those who are happily engaged with the world, and think that they can better it, that they acknowledge the existence in their midst of those who are unhappily disengaged from the world, and think that the world can be bettered by its end. Despair in not a common emotion in eliteland, which is where most of our politicians and journalists live; but elsewhere it is as common as weeds.


Let me reiterate: I am not saying that I disapprove to the police moving into the FLDS ranch; on the contrary, I'm glad that they did--cultists accused of the exploitation of underage girls need to be investigated and stopped. But I am even more glad that they did it the way they did, even with all the questions which still exist about the raid. It showed some humility, it showed some reasonableness, it showed some caution. Maybe all that doesn't quite add up to a "respect" for strangeness...but for those of us who are strange, or at least who have roots in and a connection to that which is strange, a little more caution is a good thing. (Now if the media could only learn the same.)

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

Waco is not in east Texas.

Russell Arben Fox said...

I know, Anonymous. I just didn't want to mess too much with Wieseltier's prose. (Though you'd think some fact checker could have scrounged up a map. Though this is TNR we're talking about...)

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the post. But do you ever wonder what the cost of caution was, in terms of allowing more time hiding evidence, secreting or intimidating victims or witnesses, etc.?

loafingcactus said...

I arrived here via a link from Hugo Schwyzer and appreciate your comments.

My concern about the raid is a small thing, but I think there is something insanely inappropriate about having Baptist buses rolling in to dismantle another religious community. Surely they could have found another bus source or a roll of paper to place over the bus signs.

It is a small thing, but in a situation such as this there must not be any sign--literal or figurative--that one religion is being placed over another. That is fundamental to the American ideal, and that is no small thing.

Anonymous said...

the utah attorney general this “caiaphas shurtleff” got the legislature of utah to raise the age in utah from 14 to 15 because he knew this would allow the law enforcemtn to persecute the people whose religion he opposes.

And what is the difference between 14 yo and 15 yo anyway. one day??

And i can verify that none of the polyg girls are sluts and none have taken the LBT (low back tattoo). this is why they are being persecuted.

the local govrenment devils want all girls to be whores and sluts like their own wives and daughters. It makes them feel inferior when they think of the pure polyg girls but have to look at their own tattooed up whorish women. to be honest, i sympathize with them. those ugly faded tattoos combined with the stench of cigerette butts is a romance killer for sure.

Guy Murray said...

Russell,

Interesting post. I admit, I have to read your stuff a couple of times for it to sink in. It's not that you're a bad writer--my bulb burns at a lower wattage than yours.

A couple of observations:

1. "[T]his is the United States," Doran said. "We are going to respect them. We're not going to violate their civil rights until we get an outcry."

I found this quote steeped in irony. Texas won't violate civil rights until their is an outcry? If it's popular enough, then the State is justified in wholesale civil right's violations?

2. Antinomian rhetoric and actions, sometimes bordering on violence? Check

I think the violence argument is overplayed as to Joseph. I think Bushman treats this well in RSR. Yes, Joseph talked the talk at times--but in the final analysis refused to walk the walk. The best example, I think, was his forbearance on using the Nauvoo Militia to protect himself, Hyrum and Nauvoo. Outside of the United States standing army at the time, I seriously doubt there was comparable armed force in the entire state of Ilinois which could have taken Joseph and Nauvoo by force had they decided differently. Instead, he did go like a lamb to the slaughter.

But, I think by and large your points are will taken. And, thanks for the link over to M&A.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Russell. It's clear enough we in the (larger) community owe it to these children to stop this madness, but it's equally true we've got to be very, very careful about how we do it. I think at some point in the 1990's I dismissed the Wieseltier essay as TNR anti-Clinton silliness, but on reading again it's a great deal better than I gave credit for at the time.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Anonymous--

But do you ever wonder what the cost of caution was, in terms of allowing more time hiding evidence, secreting or intimidating victims or witnesses, etc.?

Of course; these are exactly the kind of threats and risks which all enclosed communities (and not just religious ones, though I suppose they're the ones we hear the most about) pose. If a community isn't transparent, believing and thinking and acting in the same way as the rest of us, who knows what they might be doing to their weakest, most vulnerable members? I'm not opposed to intervening to defend such potential victims, but I also want to try to make certain that those who have the responsibility of enforcing common standards don't make the easy (and false) assumption that "strangeness"--even the sort of strangeness that many (rightfully!) find extremely distasteful, like marrying young or plural marriages--is itself an excuse for intervention. There are no clear and obvious lines here; we just have to try to follow the best, most compassionate and open-minded rules we can.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Loafingcactus--

I think there is something insanely inappropriate about having Baptist buses rolling in to dismantle another religious community. Surely they could have found another bus source or a roll of paper to place over the bus signs. It is a small thing, but in a situation such as this there must not be any sign--literal or figurative--that one religion is being placed over another.

Excellent observation. I'm not one who freaks out over faith-based initiatives or every overlap between church and state, especially in local communities, but when you're conducting and intervention into one religious group, one really ought to take extra efforts to make certain that there isn't a whiff of "religious competition" poisoning the situation.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Guy--

Texas won't violate civil rights until their is an outcry?

Yeah, poor choice of words there on the part of the sheriff. But his point, I'm sure, is that they aim to avoid taking any actions--including legal ones, or at least arguably so--that would compromise civil rights until they received an actionable complaint.

Yes, Joseph talked the talk at times--but in the final analysis refused to walk the walk.

True enough, when it came to matters of violence and government's ultimate authority (not that there wasn't violence, just that Joseph himself didn't fully condone such). But of course there are other matters of civil law--like those have to do with marriage, obviously--that he was rather cavalier about.

Anonymous said...

"Waco is not in east Texas"?

Uh... Yes, it is.

Matthew said...

What is most fascinating here is that our LDS heritage of persecution by the federal government runs so deep that even in 2008 we are suspicious of it. There is little question that we all favor civil rights being upheld and I don't disagree with the sentiment that informs this post. But as a thought exercise, assume that the allegations are true and then ask yourself whether you would feel any compunction about a warrant being served based on less than probable cause. As one balances the harms here, the worst that comes of government overreaching is that the children are returned in fairly short order by a court. Not a minimal intrusion to be sure, but the consequences of inaction are unspeakable. Yes, of course, lets do things the right way, but lets not give any misplaced sympathy to what may be no more than a pedophilia cult. They don't deserve it.

djw said...

Great Post, Russell (I said this on Friday, but mistakenly made my comment anonymous).

but lets not give any misplaced sympathy to what may be no more than a pedophilia cult.

But of course any community is more than a pedophilia cult; given that it's the (disturbingly closed)universe that plays a central role in giving meaning to people's lives, it will inevitably be more than that. Clearly, this is a case where intervention is warranted, and it's probable that the FLDS is unreformable and should probably cease to exist as a community. But inevitably, for people who live in this universe, it is much more than that.

Moreover, even if and when we're all in agreement that this raid is a necessary and appropriate exercise of state power, we should still be troubled by the degree of state power we're authorizing (not just legally but morally here) and must consider in some detail the way we're authorizing this power such that we're minimizing chances of future abuses of state power following this precedent

Harl Delos said...

According to the affidavit used to get the search warrent, the caller supposedly said her husband had taken her to the hospital when he had broken several of her ribs.

Health care professionals are *required* to report suspected abuse, not by some voluntary code of ethics, but by statutory law. Did they have such a report from a doctor? If so, they should have acted earlier; if not, they should not have acted at all. And there's no mention of such a report in the affidavit.

Did anyone contact the hospital to see if, in fact, they treated the person that the voice on the phone claimed to be? There's no mention in the affidavit that they tried to do so. Why not? Were they afraid they would find out that the phone call was a big lie?

I'm not in favor of child abuse; I'd like to see an extremely painful and extremely violent means of execution used for such perps. But I'm not in favor of abusing the constitution, either.

Doug said...

Pop song that says something related to this topic:

here's a strange one in the jungle
And I think I here him calling my name
There's a strange one in the jungle
And he's offering death without pain
Freshen up, freshen up, freshen up

There's a strange one in the jungle
And he says that death need not hurt
There's a strange one in the jungle
He's got something to quench your thirst
Freshen up, freshen up, freshen up
Freshen up, freshen up, freshen up

Guyana punch, uh-oh, uh-oh-oh (repeat a bit)

There's a strange one in the jungle
And he says that now is the time
There's a strange one in the jungle
Here come the planes, please form a straight line
Freshen up, freshen up, freshen up

There's a strange one in the jungle
And he questions all that one thinks
There's a strange one in the jungle
With a new and exciting drink
Freshen up, freshen up, freshen up
Freshen up, freshen up, freshen up

Guyana punch, uh-oh, uh-oh-oh (repeat a bit)

(Then repeat this and fade out):
There's a strange one in the jungle

Anonymous said...

Why do I get the feeling the cultists rights would not be debated in any quarter (or would have been debated apropos Waco) if the cultists had been Hare Krishnas or Rastafarians?

Russell Arben Fox said...

Anonymous (and Anonymous too)--

I'm going to stay out of the "where in the world is Waco?" fight. I've never been there. The map looks to me like central Texas, but I can understand the east Texas interpretation too. Maybe you have to live in the state.

Russell Arben Fox said...

David--

[A]ny community is more than a pedophilia cult; given that it's the (disturbingly closed) universe that plays a central role in giving meaning to people's lives, it will inevitably be more than that. Clearly, this is a case where intervention is warranted, and it's probable that the FLDS is unreformable and should probably cease to exist as a community. But inevitably, for people who live in this universe, it is much more than that.

Absolutely true, and an excellent response to Matthew. You ask a hard question Matthew, and there is no easy answer. But that's we have liberal procedures in place, and why they're so important to our democracy--they force us to acknowledge, even when we don't really want to, that these are hard questions without easy answers. Not even the suspicion of coercive marriage practices automatically makes for easy answers; not when you have a people's community and their faith (distasteful as it may be) at stake.

[E]ven if and when we're all in agreement that this raid is a necessary and appropriate exercise of state power, we should still be troubled by the degree of state power we're authorizing (not just legally but morally here) and must consider in some detail the way we're authorizing this power such that we're minimizing chances of future abuses of state power following this precedent.

Also absolutely true, and excellently said. Thanks. (It's good to hear from you David; I was afraid you'd gone missing from the blogosphere.)

Russell Arben Fox said...

Harl--

Health care professionals are *required* to report suspected abuse, not by some voluntary code of ethics, but by statutory law. Did they have such a report from a doctor?...Did anyone contact the hospital to see if, in fact, they treated the person that the voice on the phone claimed to be? There's no mention in the affidavit that they tried to do so. Why not? Were they afraid they would find out that the phone call was a big lie?

Of course, there could be a lot of reasons why this case of abuse might have escaped the eyes of educators and health professionals; the cult's reclusiveness being a primary one. But still, you're asking important questions.

Doug--dude, that's a weird song. I've never heard it before; I'm going to have to track it down.

Anonymous--are you making a point about a privilege that Christian churches and cults enjoy, or about the mistreatment of non-Christians and/or non-whites? Either way, I hope you're wrong, but admittedly, you may not be.

Doug said...

Russell, the song is by The Judys, and it's even weirder when you hear it. I only ever had it on a compilation tape a friend made, but 20 years later, it's still in my head.

While Waco may be one end of the spectrum of what not to do at the interface between law enforcement and religious oddities, Jonestown is surely the other. If authorities who get reports of abuse and systematic lawbreaking aren't thinking about what happened in Guyana, they ought to be.