First Things normally takes quiet pride in its disregard of the merely topical. We write and edit, if not for the ages, at least with a view more long run than that provided by yesterday’s or tomorrow’s headlines. It is true that in The Public Square and occasionally elsewhere we take account of the passing scene, but even then our long lead time (if nothing else) decrees that we comment not in immediate response but with somewhat distanced reflection. In the face of journalistic convention, we almost never have need to stop the presses, and developing news stories seldom find their way into our pages.
It came as a considerable shock, then, that the publication of our May issue, featuring a long lead essay (our longest ever) on the 1993 Waco tragedy, coincided with the bombing of the federal government building in Oklahoma City, supposedly by a man motivated in major part by his anger over government behavior at Waco. Oklahoma City made Waco news again, and First Things found itself, by grim coincidence, in an unaccustomed position at journalism’s cutting edge. Both the essay and its author, Dean M. Kelley, received extensive notice in major newspapers across the country, and Mr. Kelley’s many interviews concerning his piece included segments on 60 Minutes and the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour. For the first time, First Things flirted with notoriety. We became, you might say, neo-famous.
So far as we can tell, the overwhelming majority of our readers responded favorably to the Waco story. The great strength of the piece, many said, was Mr. Kelley’s measured, matter-of-fact approach to an episode that could easily have lent itself to sensationalist treatment. The author told his terrible story with a minimum of embellishment or editorial comment. The unadorned narrative indicts the government quite on its own. It is difficult to imagine an objective reader who would examine the facts of the matter and not conclude that both the original raid on the Branch Davidians by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms on February 23 and the subsequent assault on the Davidians’ residence by the FBI on April 19 were, to put the matter as mildly as possible, entirely avoidable disasters. Some eighty-five people-four of them ATF agents, the rest Branch Davidians-died unnecessarily because of unconscionable blundering by government agencies.
The grave implications of Mr. Kelley’s report made a few readers nervous. Understandably ignorant of FT’s production schedule, they worried whether our Waco story might intend a measure of exoneration-or at least mitigation-for Timothy McVeigh or whoever it was who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City. (Hardly possible, since the bombing occurred after the issue was published.) More plausibly, at least on the surface, they wondered whether the article might be understood as a defense of the bizarre theology of the Branch Davidians’ leader, David Koresh, or as contributing, even after the fact, to a climate of overheated political discourse somehow implicated in the bombing tragedy.
About David Koresh, the point is simple. The editors of First Things don’t presume to speak for Dean Kelley, but none of us would offer ourselves as supporters or defenders of Mr. Koresh’s apocalyptic visions. But that is entirely beside the point. Our society does not ordinarily kill people for expounding bad theology. The evidence Mr. Kelley presents suggests strongly that Koresh acted defensively, not offensively. At the time of the original ATF raid, he opened the door of the residence-unarmed-and pleaded, “What do you want? There’s women and children in here!” He saw himself as a beleaguered victim, not as an agent of divine vengeance against an apostate world. (He may have been in violation of various gun laws, but that is not normally considered a capital offense.)
The larger point concerning the climate of political opinion has gotten obscured in a flurry of partisan charges and countercharges. No serious reader of Dean Kelley’s essay could read it as inflammatory or irresponsible. But there is room for legitimate concern over how America in general conducts its political debates, even if one can’t trust politicians to lead that discussion. President Clinton began the muddying of the waters when he presented, on 60 Minutes, a grossly distorted account of the original ATF raid at Waco, one that made it appear that the mass assault by the government-which in fact had no clear provocation-was a perfectly ordinary presentation of a warrant for search and arrest. Those nut groups on the right who live by paranoid fantasies of an America controlled by one or another branch of the Illuminati could hardly have asked for better testimony. Where an apology was in order, there was only blind defense of the indefensible.
Beyond that, the President took the occasion of the bombing to initiate a debate on “hate speech.” Here he had a point, even if it was both partial and self-interested. When leaders of the National Rifle Association indulge in dark comments about “jackbooted government thugs” in order to justify their reading of the Second Amendment they go beyond acceptable rhetorical boundaries, and former President Bush was right to call them on it. This is not to say that specific charges along those lines are always improper. The ATF, in particular, has in a number of documented instances acted in ways for which the term “thuggish” is precisely appropriate. But there are crazies on the fringes of American politics eager to seize on any glimmer of evidence suggesting government conspiracies to destroy constitutional liberties. We can’t let their paranoia inhibit robust political debate, but neither can we be indifferent to their presence in the things we say concerning our political opponents. The line of the allowable cannot be drawn exactly, but it can be suggested: most of us understand, for example, that Rush Limbaugh stands within it, Gordon Liddy beyond.
The responsibility of government in all this is to conduct its law enforcement activities in ways that do not invite extremist response. And when it acts otherwise-as it surely did at Waco-it should concede its errors rather than concoct elaborate justifications for malfeasance. It surely cannot expect its misdeeds to be ignored or to receive other than intense scrutiny and rebuke.
First Things will not normally be taking the lead in the kind of investigative reporting Dean Kelley so valuably provided about Waco. Being on journalism’s cutting edge has its excitements, but we’ve always thought that it’s not the place where first things are-or First Things ordinarily ought to be-located.