The siege of the Branch Davidian complex in 1993 was, according to Gladwell, doomed from the start because the F.B.I. and the Branch Davidians were simply occupying different realities. The F.B.I. saw the incident as one led by a dangerous person (David Koresh) who was manipulating people through a veneer of religion. In this construct, religion was just the tool Koresh needed wield power over his followers and to him is was purely utilitarian. If espousing a political ideology or a different religion or belief in little green men would have gotten him to the same place he would be equally likely to adopt those beliefs in order to gain and keep his followers.
The Davidians, however, were true believers. To them, they saw the physical proof of biblical prophecy all around them. Talk of working things out, good plea deals or traditional hostage negotiation tactics just sounded like so much gibberish to them. Didn’t the F.B.I. get that this wasn’t about some firearms charge? This was about god.
Both parties were trying (and failing) to put themselves into the shoes of the other to understand them. The F.B.I. operated from the perspective of ‘We’ve negotiated with criminals before….this guy is a criminal…therefore he’ll respond in a predictable way.’ The Davidians approached this from a religious point of view…’Anyone should be able to understand our position if they only understand scripture properly.’ Both of those assumptions were deeply flawed and in cases like this the resolution is inevitable. The group with the better weapons will ‘win’.
But it didn’t necessarily need to end like this. There were people who could do the ‘Davidian to F.B.I.’ translation. That requires, however, at least one side to acknowledge that there might be another reality to translate from. The F.B.I wasn’t willing to engage in that sort of thinking. It’s easy to fault them for that but it’s not that easy. Criminals conduct deception operations of greater or lesser sophistication all the time. Law enforcement can’t indulge all of these attempts. Still, it does appear that they lacked the ability to ever consider it.