Summary of "Pandemonium in Waco: All the King's Horses and All the King's Men"

Summary of

Pandemonium in Waco: All the King's Horses and All the King's Men

by Ruth Heimburg

Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Pandemonium in Waco: All the King's Horses and All the King's Men, ICAR Newsletter 6:1 (Spring 1994) p. 1, 7-9.

Heimburg discusses the Waco tragedy and argues that it shows that using force to coerce submission is not an effective way of handling conflict. She suggests eight specific ways in which use of mediation and insights gained from conflict resolution studies might have averted the escalation of violence into tragedy at Waco.

In 1993 armed Federal agents attempted to enter the Branch Davidian commune in Waco, Texas in order to serve criminal warrants for weapons violations. Violence ensued, killing four agents and wounding sixteen. Federal agents held the compound under siege for more than fifty days. The siege ended when Federal forces stormed the compound with tanks and tear gas. Fire erupted in the compound killing all the remaining Branch Davidians. The final death toll exceeded ninety people. Heimburg argues that there was no serious negotiation between federal agents and the Branch Davidians, and no serious consideration of any option other than force by federal agents. Federal negotiators offered only an ultimatum: surrender or be forced. Moreover, subsequent analysis of Waco tends to accept uncritically the propriety of resorting to force. Heimburg argues that the use and threat of force, in the absence of any real negotiation or mediation process, contributed to the escalation of violence and tragic conclusion at Waco. Use of negotiation could have averted that violence.

First, Heimburg notes, "there was a lack of opportunity to exchange reasons for their respective responses to the underlying conflict conditions and the dynamics of conflict escalation."[p. 7] The exact nature of the problem at Waco was never clearly defined. Federal agents cited concerns with child abuse, weapons violations, and sanitary conditions. There appears to have been some concern with avenging the deaths of the initial agents, and with enhancing the agency's images. The federal agents' position that they could only accept unconditional surrender did not seem relevant to any of their suggested purposes. Mediation could have been helpful in clarifying the issues and options, and in separating the issues from positions.

Similarly, a third-party could have helped to identify the participants in the conflict to each other. There appears to have been some confusion among the Branch Davidians as to whom they were dealing with. As federal forces stormed the compound Branch Davidian leader David Koresh contacted the local police offering to surrender. However the local police were not in contact with the federal agents.

A skilled third-party might have identified the parties' conflict behaviors, including the tendencies which led to violent escalation, as part of a larger conflict dynamic. Instead both sides developed a siege mentality. The parties became more fixed and polarized in their positions, and each saw the other as intransigent and unreasonable. Similarly, a trained mediator could have identified what each side perceived as the others' hypocrisy and bad faith as products of the larger conflicts dynamic, rather than as basic character traits of the parties.

A third-party might also have been able to arrange a mediated meeting between the parties. Such face-to-face contact tends to humanize the participants, facilitate mutual recognition, and work against polarization. A third-party would have also insisted on and facilitated private communication between the parties. Public negotiations tend to encourage posturing for the audience, and result in intransigence and polarization.

The public nature of the communication at Waco was also damaging, in that the publicity was largely one-sided. Federal agents were able to create dehumanized image of the Davidians as fanatic child abusers. Such images encourage escalation by justifying harsh action by the "good guys" and provoking defensive reactions from those portrayed as the "bad guys."

Finally, Heimburg observes that part of the offered justification for entering the compound by force was that federal negotiators were frustrated and fatigued. Heimburg argues that federal negotiators' fatigue was due in part to their involvement as participants in the conflict. They had the double task of both negotiation and defense of their own positions. Trained mediators could have acted to defuse the parties' frustration.