By David B. Kopel & Paul H. Blackman, Prometheus Books, March 1997, 1573921254

David Kopel is a lawyer, and research director for the Independence Insititute, a Libertarian think tank. Paul Blackman is a criminologist and research coordinator of the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action. They do not hide their affiliations. Their goal is demonstrating what’s wrong with the increasing nationalization and internationalization of police forces. Innocent people are being hit with “dynamic entries” and caught up in investigations that have nothing to do with them. “Criminals” are people who own weapons, but don’t use them.

The book is very detailed and well-written. It explains why the Branch Davidians died, and why they shouldn’t have. The ATF was looking for a nice PR opportunity, and it turned into a fiasco. The federal government is out of control in many ways, esp. financially. However, the way federal police have encroached on the States is more than a fiscal problem, it’s a physical problem. Forfeitures are a way of increasing budgets, and is no different than extortion. People’s lives can be ruined. Search on Jewell and Atlanta, and you come up with hits on Richard Jewell, a completely innocent security guard, whose life was thrown into disarray by a leak by Janet Reno.

To me, the most poignant part about the book is the pervasiveness of groupthink in the world. Herds are safe until everybody falls off a cliff.


It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Waco disaster resulted from extremely poor collective decision making by three groups who would be expected to know better.

First, there are the Branch Davidians. As videos of the Branch Davidians illustrate, [p209] the followers of Koresh were not brainwashed, nor were they stupid. To the contrary, the adults in this group were by and large people who were successful in their various jobs; some of them were highly educated and articulate. Yet all of them made a decision to follow a self-proclaimed prophet and messiah whose behavior would suggest symptoms of mental illness and sociopathology, rather than divine anointing. The collective pull towards Koresh was so strong that even the undercover BATF agent who was sent to spy on Koresh almost became a Branch Davidian. Despite his training to resist the lures of his undercover targets, and his initial antipathy towards the “cult” he was infiltrating, he might have converted if he had not left the Branch Davidians at the end of every day. How could so many adults place so much faith in a very sinful messiah, ultimately giving up their lives for him?

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms made its share of collective, foolish decisions as well. The middle and upper management of BATF knowingly endangered lives of BATF agents, innocent Branch Davidian adults, and children, in planning ilitary raid as a high-publicity method of serving a search warrant. The BATF’s tunnel visionaries planned in detail how to send faxes to the press announcing the raid’s success, but planned nothing at all for what to do if their carefully-scripted dynamic entry did not work. Dozens of agents in the BATF Special Response Teams, supposedly the cream of the BATF crop, raced into the cattle cars and then charged at a house full of people known to be heavily armed-even after their commander told them that the targets of the surprise raid knew they were coming. Four BATF agents and six Branch Davidians died as the result of the BATF’s flawed decisions.

The FBI is the elite of American law enforcement. But like the Branch Davidians and the BATF, the FBI ignored huge, obvious risks, and many people died as a result. There were so many good reasons not to precipitously launch the tank and chemical warfare attack on April 19, it is sometimes hard to understand how so many highly intelligent, highly trained FBI officials could make such a bad decision together.

Conspiracy theorists have a ready explanation for all these bad decisions. The BATF and the FBI were part of a vast United Nations conspiracy to enslave the world. There were no mistakes made; everything that the BATF and FBI did was a conscious part of the conspiracy. On the other side of the political fence, the anti cult propagandists insist that the Branch Davidians did not make any bad decisions. Being “brainwashed” members of a “cult,” they had no free will to exercise.

The more plausible explanation, however, for the high-risk, low-quality decisions of the Branch Davidians, BATF, and FBl is what is known as “groupthink.” The term groupthink was created by academics in the early 1970s to describe how groups of intelligent individuals could collectively make decisions much worse than the individuals might have made if they had decided alone. Public policy disasters which have been studied as instances of groupthink include the Bay of Pigs invasion during the Kennedy administration; the Johnson administration’s escalation of the Vietnam War; the Carter administration’s Iranian hostage rescue mission; the decision of Morton Thiokol managers to proceed with the Space Shuttle Challenger launch in 1986 despite the warnings of engineers, in order not to interfere with NASA’s desire for a timely launch which would help NASA politically; and the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra fiasco.

[p210] Many of the factors leading to groupthink were present, on all sides, at Waco. First, in groups which are vulnerable to groupthink, group members tend to value the group above everything else. The social isolation of law enforcement officers from the non–police community has been documented by many researchers. Unquestioning adherence to group norms is likely all the higher in special high-prestige law enforcement groups, such as the FBI, its HRT, or the Special Response Teams (the BATF version of the HRT). The Branch Davidians, of course, explicitly saw their church as the only good thing in a Babylonian world permeated by sin.

Groupthinking groups tend to have certain structural flaws: insulatity; no traditio of impartial leadership; no norms requiring methodical decision-making; and a hom( geneous background for their members. The militaristic HRT and SRTs, heavily dral from ex-military personnel, had these flaws, as did the BATF and the FBI. While the Branch Davidians were highly heterogeneous in terms of race, nationality, and social background, they were intensely homogeneous in their ideology.

Groups likely to suffer from groupthink often overestimate their group’s moralit and invulnerability, while also stereotyping outgroups. The Branch Davidians thought themselves the only righteous people in the world, thought themselves invulnerable if God wanted them to be invulnerable, and stereotyped their adversaries as the Babylonian tools of Satan. Conversely, the FBI and BATF stereotyped their adversaries as “cultists,” and acted as if resistance to the armed might of the government were inherently immoral.

Groupthink tends to produce self-censorship among the dissenters, as when FBI behavioral psychologist Peter Smerick changed his memos to support the aggressive “tactical” approach that his superiors wanted.

Groupthink is more likely to occur in a provocative situation with high amounts of external stress. In these situations, groupthink is especially likely when the members of the group have little hope for better solutions than those proposed by the leader. The attractiveness of the Branch Davidians’ alternative to Koresh–surrendering to the FBI–was greatly undermined by the government’s treatment of the adults and children who did surrender.

One symptom of groupthink is deindividuation, which results in individuals becoming less self-aware, and more inclined to go along with group decisions. Rather than taking personal responsibility for their own actions, de-individuated people see responsibility as diffused and placed on the group as a whole. The diffusion of responsibility leads to more aggressive behavior toward outsiders.

Some social scientists believe that an important factor leading to deindividuation. is anonymity, and at least at Waco, the results were consistent with this theory. Except for Koresh, the Branch Davidians were thoroughly anonymized. They were treated–and they acted–as if they were just a mass of indistinguishable followers of Koresh.

Anonymity is intensified when the group all wears the same clothing. The HRT and SRT members not only wore identical “assault” clothing, they even wore identical tactical masks, the most anonymizing piece of clothing possible. The individual members of SRTs never would have shot wildly into a building containing women and children. Nor would the HRT members, as individuals, shoot an unarmed mother carrying a baby, torture children with chemical warfare agents, or destroy someone else’s [p211] home. It was only in the context of groupthink, of the diffusion of responsibility, that people could collectively perpetrate atrocities they would never perpetrate individually.

Bad decisions tend to breed more bad decisions, “the tendency to become entrapped in a spiral of ineffective policies.” In the Iran-Contra cases, the North-McFarlane group made more and more commitments to arm the Iranians “because so much had invested already and the alleged costs of stopping would be unacceptable.” At Waco, the heavy commitment to training for the BATF raid helped create a perceived necessity to go forward with the raid, no matter what. Once four lives of federal agents had been lost, federal law enforcement became entrapped into finding some way to rationalize those four deaths, by achieving a “victory” over the Branch Davidians. The Branch Davidians were even more heavily invested in their previous mistakes. Most had given up their old lives to move to the Mount Carmel Center. Husbands and wives had given up their marriages. To admit that Koresh was a false messiah, not a person who was worth dying for, would be to admit that the Branch Davidians had squandered their careers, their families, and their earlier faiths, for nothing at all.

Groupthink often leads the group to ignore risks which affect only the stereotyped outgroup. While the BATF and the Branch Davidians both exposed themselves, as well as their “enemies,” to high risks, the FBI’s April 19 assault was a risky decision in which almost all the risks would be borne by the outgroup–even though the outgroup included many innocent children.

The military, with all of its internal pressure for conformity, including adherence to a “can-do” spirit, is especially vulnerable to groupthink. The April 19 assault was planned by the military’s Delta Force, and executed by the FBI counterpart to Delta Force, the HRT. The military during peacetime has an institutional overeagerness to take on high-profile missions, while underestimating the risks of failure. Quasi-military units, such as the HRT, likewise spend long periods sitting idle, and may be overeager to contribute their “solution” to a high-profile problem, while underestimating the dangers of their involvement.

How can groupthink, and its resultant risky decisions, be minimized? Three reforms would have been particularly relevant at Waco, and should be implemented by decision-makers in crisis situations. First, every group meeting should have a designated devil’s advocate, who will point out potential risks. Second, special care should be taken so that no one agency or coalition of experts can monopolize the flow of incoming information. Janet Reno, by allowing the FBI to monopolize the information coming to her, made it almost inevitable that she would eventually do what the FBI wanted. Finally, the virtues which make the military such an effective international killing force–such as uniformity, obedience, and group cohesion–make it especially susceptible to groupthink. For this reason, the military should have no participation in law enforcement; quasi-military units such as the FBI’s HRT and the BATF SRTs should be thoroughly demilitarized, and should play, at most, a very subordinate role in law enforcement decision making.

More generally, American society should consider whether it is a good idea to teach children that obedience and conformity are important virtues. If there were more individualism and iconoclasm, there would be fewer potential followers of disturbed characters like David Koresh.