As a human being, David Koresh was quite obviously a miserable figure. However, as a psychological case study, he remains absolutely fascinating. The term “textbook figure” is one that is often overused, but Koresh is truly the textbook figure for a cult leader; he may as well have been the archetypal figure from which all future cult leaders will derive. One of the things that made his methods so fascinating was the skill with which he gained the compliance of his victims, which contrasts with the failed attempts at gaining the compliance of both Koresh and the victims on the part of the ATF forces assembled to stop him.
As it turns out, Koresh had a fairly simple formula: his methods of compliance-gaining were rooted in fear. David Koresh’s primary compliance-gaining strategies were rooted in fear. Part of this was rooted in the simple name change: by naming himself Koresh, he was associating himself with “the Persian king who allowed the Jews to return to Israel after their captivity in Babylon” (Lacayo, 1993).
While this itself is not associated with fear, Koresh attempted to instill a fear of the outside world upon his followers: a persecution mentality that made them feel as if they were under attack by the world, and could only find peace through the “savior” figure of Koresh. Tethering the metaphorical feelings of persecution into “apocalyptic theology,” he convinced his followers that it was necessary to prepare for anything from “social collapse” to a “nuclear holocaust” (Lacayo, 1993).
Perhaps this was the most insidious part of his compliance-gaining strategies: in the uncertainty of the eighties, preparation for a nuclear holocaust did not seem out of place at all. However, by aligning the secular fears with religious ones, Koresh went about attempting to institute a new system of morality among his followers: after all, if the end of the world was truly nigh, then old systems of law and order would seem meaningless.
By eroding that social foundation and convincing his followers that their previous lives were based on concepts (such as justice) that were really just social constructs, Koresh was able to position himself as the new source of authority for these people. What’s more, with the survivalist mentality firmly in place, Koresh would seem like a more trustworthy authority than government officials…their party line, after all, is that things such as a nuclear holocaust will not happen.
To a paranoid mentality, they would seem to be doing nothing to prepare for this catastrophe; Koresh, stockpiling both food and ammunition, seemed willing to take the steps that real officials refused to. In a darkly ironic twist, Koresh did not outright replace certain old systems of authority, so much as he subverted them to his own ends: “In caustic monologues, Koresh would lead his zealots through the Scripture in sessions that could last far into the night. To cover expenses, cult members donated their paychecks if they worked outside” (Lacayo, 1993).
Koresh became a fire-and-brimstone preacher-like figure whose gospel was simple, and spoke to the paranoid minds quite directly: scriptures were subverted into screeds against the outside world, which fostered the compliance-gaining methodology of his inner cult life as being a salvation from the harshness of the outside world. Unsurprisingly, Koresh used these biblical verses in order to foster gender stereotypes: women were supposed to be meek and humble, and look up to him as a kind of alpha male presence.
Sex was used as a way of exerting control over these women (this false intimacy was a way of gaining their cooperation) while celibacy was used to control the men. Koresh seemed to be relying on Freudian notions for this: the sexually-frustrated men were encouraged to sublimate their tension into work around the cult. Conformity, compliance, and obedience may as well have been the chief mantras of the Waco cult. Cult members readily conformed to the bizarre lifestyle encouraged by Koresh: according to the parent of two of Koresh’s victims, “You begin to live for a pat on the head” (Lacayo, 1993).
This was one of the chief ways Koresh gained compliance: by propping himself up as the sole authority, he was also the sole dispensary of praise…which, as time went on, was more than enough for many of the members. Compliance was, perhaps, most disgustingly illustrated by the women (many of them children) who were willing to submit sexually to Koresh’s advances. This is really an extension of the first: once victims are in a mental state where a pat on the head is sufficient for mental reinforcement, sharing a bed with their cult leader was that much more special.
Obedience was demonstrated by the things that cult members were willing to give up: television, sex (for the men), and even their lives as carnivorous eaters. All of this because Koresh assured them that he was showing them a better way to live. With these compliance methods in place, one might wonder how the ATF agents were able to exercise compliance-gaining strategies of their own. One method that seemed successful, at least as far as securing the trust of Koresh himself, was allowing him to deliver a radio address heard throughout the country.
While the outcome of this was not optimal—Koresh did not suddenly surrender, as he had promised—the ATF had shown a willingness to listen to him, and to give him a platform for his views. This, of course, followed their failed attempt to simply move in and forcibly eject Koresh. The goal of this was to remove the figure for whom the cult members so readily offered compliance, but they did not count on the willingness of the cult members to die for Koresh.
The failure is compounded by allegations that “that the deadly raid in Waco, Texas, may have been approved although one of their undercover agents had told his superiors there that cult leader David Koresh became [nervous] after taking a telephone call” (Thomas and Schneider, 1993). ” Koresh is a figure that will certain remain infamous throughout the textbooks of both history and psychology. However, his case remains a unique opportunity to analyze the human psyche, and to develop better ways of not only dealing with future cults, but helping to ensure that future cults do not even come to be.
As long as individuals are willing to see authority figures as not only arbiters of justice, but arbiters of identity, there will always be the risk that a charismatic figure will draw followers to himself. However, when individuals are prepared to construct meaning for themselves, and to acknowledge authority as a simple method of allowing society to function, then Koresh and his ilk lose all power. References Lacayo, Richard (1993, March 15th). Cult of Death. Time Magazone. Web. n. pag Thomas, Pierre and Howard Schneider. (1993, April 2nd) ATF Agents Knew Before Raid That Koresh May Have Been Tipped Off. The Washington Post. Web. n. pag.
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