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Jewish World Review July 27, 2000 /24 Tamuz, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Speed kills: The lesson of another Waco post-mortem

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE MOST IMPRESSIVE and relevant part of the eminent John Danforth's long, detailed and extensive investigation of the Waco massacre is what it didn't investigate.

The former senator from Missouri -- and everybody's idea of the gray-haired elder statesman -- didn't comment on the judgment shown by those who OK'd the plans to storm the compound outside Waco. That decision would result not in a rescue, but in an inferno in which 80 people would be sacrificed.

One of the lawyers for the few survivors is Ramsey Clark, the former attorney general who seems to show up in the wake of every political disaster. Told that the Danforth Report had cleared the Feds, he asked: "If their conduct was so right, how did it end so very wrong, with so many deaths?''

The answer is simple. Or as John Danforth himself explained, he wasn't asked to investigate the judgment shown at Waco, only the facts on the ground -- and those showed that David Koresh and his followers had started the fatal fires themselves.

But would they have ignited those fires if Janet Reno, Webb Hubbell and the other masterminds involved in this operation hadn't decided to go macho? No one should absolve David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians, for his role in this massacre, but the law should protect the innocent, not fulfill the violent fantasies of a bloody-minded madman.

Why didn't the honchos in Washington just wait out these crazies? Or even pull back and maybe save the kids, the way similar sieges are now handled?

To those questions, John Danforth and his huge staff had no answers. Because those are precisely the questions Washington didn't want him to investigate. Or as the distinguished former senator himself explained, his assignment was limited to determining "whether government agents engaged in bad acts, not whether they exercised bad judgment.'' Exactly.

If no one questions official judgments, nothing will ever be found wrong with them. When it comes to defending officialdom, a lack of interest will beat the best cover-up ever devised.

It's as if a learned archaeologist, working with a large and expert staff, had proved beyond a doubt that a group of ancient zealots had barricaded themselves on a mountaintop called Masada in the Judaean wilderness, and there methodically proceeded to slay themselves -- every man, woman and child.

The archaeologist might mention in passing that the defenders of Masada were being besieged at the time by a Roman legion, which had finally succeeded in breaching the walls of the fortress and were within the gates.

But delving into the decisions of the authorities, he would explain, was beyond his purview -- for that was a political judgment and outside his assigned area. Anybody interested in that sort of thing would have to turn to historians like Josephus, who recorded the story.

Distinguished and discreet spokesmen for the government haven't changed all that much since Pontius Pilate, who left the definition of truth to others. It wasn't his area.

It was made clear to John Danforth from the outset that he was not to raise the most relevant questions about what happened at Waco that terrible day. Did the government use good judgment? Could the children have been saved?

It is too late to know now. And those responsible for the decision to storm the compound may not want to know.

Let it be noted that in a rare moment of candor Bill Clinton did acknowledge his grievous role in this awful thing. It happened when he was being quizzed about his role in a quite different outrage -- the campaign finance scandal -- by Robert Conrad, head of the Justice Department's investigation into that other tangled affair.

When it was noted that Indonesian money man James Riady had visited the White House that fateful April 19th, the president volunteered: "I gave in to the people in the Justice Department who were pleading to go in early, and I felt personally responsible for what happened, and I still do. I made a terrible mistake.''

At least this once, Bill Clinton faced the truth, and deserves credit for it. His impromptu acceptance of responsibility says more about what happened that April day than all the apologetics his administration has indulged in since.

Usually in Washington, taking responsibility for a disaster -- as Attorney General Janet Reno also did in a brief, candid moment -- means never having to say you're sorry, let alone resign. As the Danforth Report makes clear, matters of political and even moral judgment are considered irrelevant.

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