Patience Prevails In Texas Standoff
But critics say separatists got off too easy
The quick and bloodless resolution of a standoff with separatists in Texas marks the best example yet of a new law-enforcement attitude: In dealing with fringe groups, be firm but friendly; bring in heavy guns but be reluctant to use them. And improvise where necessary.
Texas lawmen used this approach in six days of see-saw negotiations. And on Saturday, "Republic of Texas" leader Richard McClaren and three followers quietly walked away from the makeshift mountain compound they had sworn to protect with their lives. Two other group members fled on foot.
It was a jubilant moment for Texas authorities. They had quickly ended the standoff without firing a shot - and they did so with minimal FBI help. Also, Mr. McLaren isn't likely to be a martyr to Americans who reject the government's authority.
But the more-deliberate, studied approach has its critics, especially among hardboiled Texans.
"All this proves is that we're a bunch of patsies," says Malcom Tweedy, proprietor of the Stone Village Motel in Fort Davis. "The lesson is that you can pull off a lot of stunts before [police] will crack down on you."
But Texas Gov. George W. Bush said: "The message ought to be very clear to people that you're free to think any way you want to think, but you better not arm up and hurt ... citizens."
Recalling botched efforts to detain similar groups at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, officials were likely wary of confronting Republic members.
According to Jerrold Post, professor of political psychology at George Washington University, authorities erred in previous cases by adopting an aggressive stance that validated the groups' fantasies of persecution.
After Waco, he says, the FBI began a "soul searching" and reformulated its crisis-response strategy. Today, Dr. Post says, law-enforcement relies more on behavioral science than brute force.
Until now, he continues, the best example of this approach was last year's 81-day standoff with the Montana Freemen, in which the FBI waited patiently as the group's resolve collapsed.
The Fort Davis operation was managed by state authorities, but Post says, it reflects elements of a more mature strategy.
Early in the siege, Texas authorities challenged convention by swapping one jailed Republic member for two hostages the group had taken in retaliation.
After removing the group's only bargaining chip, negotiators slowly moved their forces closer and shut off power to the compound. Instead of showing a willingness to negotiate indefinitely, officers issued a final offer of a "cease-fire" in return for the group's promise to leave the compound peacefully.
But some observers wonder why the group wasn't challenged sooner. In the end, critics note, Republic members were able share their views with world audience.
"This never should have happened," says T.R. Fehrenbach, a Texas historian. "I look at the amount of money and manpower tied up in this, and the way this group harassed its neighbors for years," he says. "My feeling is that three well-placed bullets would have been more to the point."
Indeed, some experts say the unique circumstances in Fort Davis case were key to success. Not only were McLaren and his colleagues reviled locally, but they had split from other factions of their group, which refused to come to their aid.
In addition, critics say, Republic members had isolated themselves in a compound with no hostages or children - leaving authorities unencumbered by the presence of innocents.
"McLaren was in a weak position to begin with," says Mark Pitcavage, a historian who studies militia groups. "He pretty much shot himself in both feet."
But many observers hail the resolution of the Fort Davis standoff as proof that law enforcement agencies have made progress in dealing with separatist groups.
"They displayed overwhelming force, but they also made it clear that they did not want to apply it," Mr. Pitcavage says. "I think that was important in creating an atmosphere in which these people thought they could give up."