Leading Article: Waco: the cost of bungling

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MANY of those present at the horrifying end on Monday of the siege at Waco in Texas will see the fires that consumed the inhabitants of the camp there in their nightmares for weeks to come. Among the most haunting images will undoubtedly be that of the female member of David Koresh's Branch Davidian cult who fought with the law- enforcement officers trying to put out the fire consuming her clothes. The woman's shouts - she wanted to be allowed to return to die with her comrades inside the compound - are a chilling reminder of the power that bizarre cults can have over normally sensible people, and the dilemmas that law enforcement agencies face in dealing with them.

The ultimate responsibility for the fate of the 80 or so adults who died at the settlement on Monday lies not with the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; nor with the FBI; nor with Janet Reno, the Attorney General; nor even with President Bill Clinton himself. Those who stayed in the compound of their own accord and died there were victims first of the wickedness of David Koresh and second of their own gullibility. In the end, not even the best efforts of the state can protect people who want to kill themselves, individually or en masse. There can be no overwhelming obligation on police officers to put their own lives at risk to save them.

That should be the starting-point of any discussion of the handling of the 51- day siege. But at Waco, as at the People's Temple in Guyana in 1978, it was not only adults that were present. Barricaded into the fortified Mount Carmel complex along with the murderers of four government enforcement officers were about 25 children who could not be deemed even slightly responsible for the situation they were in. Some of the 50 or more children who were in the compound at the beginning of the siege were lucky enough to escape; others, such as a little girl of six from Britain who told the FBI on the telephone five weeks ago that she wanted to leave, were not.

It was the presence of those children still inside the camp that should have guided the actions of the officers assembled outside. Nothing should have been done that might increase the risk to them. Yet the sketchy details that have emerged so far of Monday's events suggest that the agencies paid no attention to such concerns. They based their operation on promises that all the children were underground - when in fact they were on an upper floor, where they had only the slimmest chance of surviving the fire. The authorities apparently received evidence that the children were in imminent danger of violence at Koresh's hands and decided to go in on the strength of that; so far, they have failed to produce it. Either way, the authorities made no attempt to surprise the camp's inhabitants; instead, they simply opened the first canisters of tear- gas and sat back to wait.

That delay allowed Koresh and his lieutenants to murder the children. It is because of their deaths, rather than those of the adults, that Ms Reno has lost the authority to remain at her post.