Troubleshooter for the Millennium

Suddenly, as the year 2000 approaches, Phillip Arnold's study of first-century apocalyptic Christians is more than a scholarly pursuit

"Unlike a lot of us who sit in the ivory tower," Wessinger says, "he stepped out bravely and the rest of us are following."

Apparently mindful of its experience during the Waco siege, when the FBI surrounded the ranch of a Montana group called the Freemen this spring, it called on Arnold's Religion-Crisis Task Force. (The FBI refused any comment, saying the Freemen case was an ongoing investigation.) Arnold recommended an expert on the religious beliefs of the Freemen, which are based in part on the Christian Identity movement. During the first week of June, Arnold flew to Jordan, Montana, at the FBI's request to gather more information about the group.

While Arnold takes no direct credit for helping end the standoff, he probably deserves some indirect credit for shifting the FBI's perspective on the religious beliefs of the Freemen. Toward the end of the conflict, the FBI flew the besieged leader of the Freemen out of his isolated ranch to consult with the group's spiritual leader, who was jailed 200 miles away in Billings. Two days later, the Freemen surrendered -- in part because the FBI had taken their religious beliefs seriously.

As the year 2000 approaches, says Arnold, we can expect to see more and more apocalyptic groups rise up, condemning society, predicting disaster, calling for a return to God, and it will be an outcry for which Arnold will have a great deal of sympathy. The siege in Waco was a microcosm, he says, of what we are likely to see again during the next four years, unless we learn some lessons.

Law enforcement? "It was arrogant and impatient," says Arnold.
The news media? "They did not try to find out what Koresh was really saying. They did not do their homework. They were whores, and as a result, men, women and children burned to death."

The public? "Apathetic. They watched the siege like they would watch a soap opera."

The clergy? "They were no-shows. Blood is on their hands."
And David Koresh and his ringleaders, people whom Arnold took quite seriously?

"They were arrogant and full of pride, full of judgment and prone to violence. They had all the answers. They were idolaters."

Arnold has spent hundreds of hours listening to the audio tapes that the FBI made during the 51-day siege. But he says he is still too close to the story to publish a book.

Religion is founded on stories, Arnold says, and where a society lacks stories, it loses its way, and demonic stories rush in to fill the vacuum, stories of conspiracy, evil and murder. The Davidians followed their story, and the FBI followed the only story about criminals it knew: they were liars and con men, interested in staying out of jail.

As the year 2000 comes, more apocalyptic groups will emerge, thinking they have the one story. A thousand years ago in Europe, people killed themselves, thinking the world was coming to an end, all because a year ended in three zeroes.

Arnold doesn't want that to happen again. To the new millennialists, he offers the words of Jesus about the end of time, a quotation law enforcement might keep in mind for future use. It comes from Matthew 24:36 of the King James version: "But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of Heaven ....

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