This report from the FBI on the cult issue is well researched and a good example of sound reactions from authorities to potential problems cult can represent for the community. It rightly warns against two of the most damaging anticult myths, the Brainwashing and the Con myths, and gives an example of mature handling from authorities through conciliation rather than confrontation - the later approach being a key factor in what helped to bring about Jonestown, Waco and the Heaven Gates tragedies.
There is a common tendency to view "cults" with a combination of mistrust and fear. Much of this hostility derives from widespread misconceptions about the nature of "cults," founded upon popular stereotypes and simple ignorance. While such misconceptions are unfortunate in the general populace, they may be dangerous when harbored by law enforcement officers charged with dealing with these groups and ensuring the safety of both "cult" members and the general public. The intent of this article is to shed light on what "cults" are and are not, to give law enforcement officers some general guidance on how to approach such movements, and to provide an illustration of how one police department successfully handled the arrival of a doomsday "cult" in its jurisdiction.(1)
In sociological terms, a "cult" may be defined as a movement that is foreign to the culture in which it lives.(2) Thus, Americans would define a "cult" as a group, generally with a religious foundation, whose beliefs and practices are unfamiliar to the majority of U.S. citizens. Many groups that Americans once thought of as "cults"-such as the early Quakers, Seventh-Day Adventists, or Mormons-have received increased recognition and acceptance and become accredited churches.(3) Other groups, such as Zen Buddhists, which many Americans may view as "cults," represent mainstream movements in other parts of the world.
Thus, defining a group as a "cult" generally has much more to do with the way society perceives the group than it does with the characteristics indigenous to the group itself.
Most scholars of religion avoid the word "cult" altogether because it carries with it a set of negative connotations: "cult" leaders are con artists; "cult" followers are brainwashed sheep; "cult" beliefs are bizarre or ludicrous; and "cult" movements are dangerous, tending toward suicide or violence.(4) These scholars instead refer to cults as "new religious movements" or "NRMs" because the majority of "cults" are young religious movements still in their first generations To avoid the negative stereotypes often associated with the word "cult," the authors will refer to these groups as new religious movements or NRMs throughout this article.
Scholars of religion have identified various characteristics that are common to NRMs. In practice, however, it proves difficult to provide a specific description of NRMs because they vary so widely, from New Age associations to Buddhist meditation groups to Christian premillennialist movements. NRMs may range in size from groups with just a handful of followers to groups with thousands of members. And, they embrace radically different doctrines, ascetic to hedonistic, from apocalyptic to utopian, and from reactionary to New Ageeach with a very different attitude toward society at large.(5)
It is critical to note at the
outset that the majority of NRMs stay within the boundaries of the law.(6)
Generally, the public only learns about the exceptions-NRM members'
committing suicide, violently confronting law enforcement, or engaging in
fraudulent financial transactions. Most NRMs, however, practice their
religions peacefully, never attracting the attention of the public, the
media, or law enforcement. Regardless of this, NRMs still conjure up
negative thoughts in most people's minds primarily because of some
long-standing myths, or misconceptions, about such groups and their
NRMs engender enormous amounts of fear and mistrust. And, because they ardently' advocate beliefs that are unorthodox or countercultural, NRMs usually have few defenders.(7) Moreover, inaccurate or sensational media reports and misinformation spread by organizations that may have an anticult bias often provide the public with its only source of information. Finally, new religious movements themselves do not have the numbers, influence, or, perhaps, interest to change society's impressions of them.(8) Thus, despite the lack of evidence, inaccurate myths about NRMs persist. To reach an accurate and effective understanding of NRMs, law enforcement officers must start from a clean slate without the prejudices that can hamper effective police work.
Mr. Szubin recently graduated from Harvard Law School.
Special Agent Jensen is an instructor in the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy.
Lieutenant Gregg serves with the Garland, Texas, Police Department.
Brainwashing stands as the most common allegation leveled against NRMs. Even the existence of brainwashing, however, is debated fiercely among behavioral scientists.(9) Clearly, in cases where movements physically coerce inductees (e.g., depriving members of food or preventing them from freely leaving), definite grounds exist for law enforcement concern. In the majority of instances, though, NRMs try to attract members through the same methods used by missionaries in mainstream churches or secular movements. NRM members may approach strangers or distribute pamphlets in the hope of enticing the uninitiated to attend a series of classes or lectures about the group's belief system.
At these sessions, groups commonly hold extended meetings or prayer services during which they emphasize and repeat certain themes or messages. Absent illegal activity, this process is entirely legitimate. Critics should not apply the term "brainwashing" to the NRM missionary and conversion process simply because they do not approve of or understand the religion in question.
Misconceptions about brainwashing may persist because it is difficult to understand the attraction of the intensely demanding NRM lifestyle. Many people think that sane individuals never would join such a group unless they were coerced physically or mentally. People overlook, however, the enormous social and psychological rewards that NRMs can offer. Converts to NRMs may receive a sense of purpose, a moral compass, a highly structured guide for their daily behavior, and a strong sense of social identity and belonging.' In this respect, NRMs often seem more attractive to prospective converts than established churches, which sometimes appear to have lost their dramatic sense of revelation and urgency.
For individuals who feel unfulfilled by existing outlets in their lives, spiritually adrift, or merely lonely, joining an NRM may provide a successful solution, at least temporarily. To put NRMs into context, the same individuals who join these groups might just as easily find happiness in such secular, high-intensity movements as the armed forces or the Peace Corps.(10)
While it may prove difficult to relate to a member's absolute commitment, it remains vitally important for law enforcement officers to at least recognize the depth and sincerity of that commitment. Dismissing NRM members' beliefs as the products of brainwashing and gullibility can result in sorely inaccurate assessments of NRM officials and members and can lead to ineffective and dangerous policing.
Certain practices sometimes are mistaken for indicators that leaders are insincere. For example, the fact that NRM leaders enjoy benefits or living comforts that their followers do not simply may reflect the honor that the groups attach to the leaders' positions. Similarly, groups' requirement that members turn over their assets to the movements may be prompted by a genuine attempt to promote an ascetic lifestyle among the members. Law enforcement officers should be very hesitant to assume that the leaders of NRMs are not sincere.
If officers suspect that NRM officials have improper motives, they should examine the leaders' backgrounds. Sociopaths(12) or con artists generally will not invest years trying to spread their messages and form groups without a guaranteed payoff. Officers also should remember that NRM leaders and followers may have many complex motivations for their behavior, not all of which are internally consistent. NRM leaders may manipulate others and, yet, still hold sincere religious beliefs. Thus, even if leaders display signs of sociopathic or criminal behavior, officers should not assume that these individuals are insincere about their religious beliefs.
In the absence of contrary evidence, officers should assume that NRM leaders are true to their spiritual convictions.
Law enforcement officers face the extremely difficult challenge of determining how dangerous a particular NRM may be.(13) Such groups as Aum Shinrikyo, which released deadly sarin nerve gas into the Tokyo subway system, pose a definite threat to their communities. Others, such as Heaven's Gate in San Diego, where members killed themselves in order to "beam up" to God's flying saucer, pose a threat to themselves. The majority, the ones that the public rarely hears about, keep mostly to themselves and never bother anyone.
Fortunately, officers can turn to established organizations that provide threat assessments of NRM groups or individuals. For example, law enforcement agencies can contact the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime through their local FBI office and obtain a threat assessment at no cost. Also, scholars of religion often can provide valuable information regarding a group's history and belief system.
The authors have developed a risk assessment table that can be of assistance in evaluating the dangerousness of NRMs. The table divides NRM characteristics into three categories: risk factors (elements that may indicate potential danger), neutral factors (traits that may appear dangerous but in fact shed little light on a group's threat potential), and protective factors (indicators that suggest that a group is stable and not dangerous). Although mainly derived from general threat assessment guidelines, these factors are tailored to the specific attributes that officers often will encounter in NRMs.(11) These factors, however, will not offer a complete "profile" of a potentially violent group.
Rather, officers should consider the risk, neutral, and protective factors as a guide to, not a replacement for, their common sense and firsthand impressions of a specific NRM.
Officers should remember that no single factor, with the possible exception of a history of violence, will determine a group's threat potential. Groups that exhibit several risk factors may never commit violent acts, while groups with few risk factors may become dangerous. For example, NRMs may obtain and stockpile weapons for different reasons. Because most NRMs exhibit a certain amount of paranoia, some will arm themselves to protect against an expected attack by the government, private groups, or some other perceived "enemy." Groups with this outlook are quite different from those that arm themselves specifically to embark on a violent crusade.
Groups of the latter type have an "offensive" orientation, while those in the former category have a "reactive" one. Offensive groups obviously pose more of a danger to the community and to themselves than reactive groups.(14) Officers, therefore, should try to determine a particular group's orientation and not assume that a group has violent intentions merely from the presence of weapons or another isolated risk factor.
Officers, of course, also must keep in mind the legal protections afforded to American citizens. Before taking any investigative action, departments should consult their legal representatives to ensure that officers do not violate the rights of potential subjects. Finally, and most important, officers always should exercise caution when dealing with unfamiliar NRMs.
A CASE STUDY OF THE GARLAND, TEXAS, POLICE DEPARTMENT
Little differentiates Garland, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, from other midsized American cities. The crime rate remains low, thanks in large part to the progressive, community-oriented policing strategies employed by the Garland Police Department. Despite its openminded, modern approach to law enforcement, however, nothing prepared the department for the challenge it faced when the Chen Tao religious movement came to town.
Founded in Taiwan in 1993, the Chen Tao movement,(15) also known as the "True Way," practices a hybrid version of Buddhism and fundamental Christianity. As with some NRMs, the 150 members offer total allegiance to their lone leader.(16) They function as a single unit, and at least some members allegedly have contributed their life's savings to the group.
When the Chen Tao movement arrived in Garland in August 1997,(17) the leader announced that, on March 31, 1998, a flying saucer would land in Garland with God aboard. Coming on the heels of two highly publicized suicides involving religious groups (the Solar Temple in Switzerland and Canada and Heaven's Gate in California), the Garland Police Department understandably became concerned. What steps could the department take to ensure that the situation was resolved as peacefully as possible?
First and foremost, the Garland Police Department mobilized its resources, tasked a group of officers with planning strategy and communicating with the members, and took the lead role in coordinating the various branches of local government that the group's presence might impact. These branches included the city manager's office, the fire department, the sanitation department, child protective services (the group included about 40 children), the transportation department, and, to prepare for every contingency, the medical examiner's office. Next, the Garland Police Department devised a strategy to deal with the situation that included assessing the group's threat potential, creating a meaningful dialogue with Chen Tao officials and members, and planning for potential problems.
Assessing the Threat
To determine the true motivations and intentions of the group, the Garland Police Department contacted several sources, including such U.S. government entities as the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, the U.S. Department of State, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as well as such international organizations as the Taiwanese Office of Consular Affairs and Office of Economic Affairs. The department also examined several Web sites relating to NRMs, in general, and Chen Tao, in particular. Last, the department contacted NRM experts in the academic community and developed a partnership with a professor from a local university.(18) Prior to working with this expert, the department set ground rules, including what role the expert would perform (he would serve as an advisor rather than a negotiator); what information the expert subsequently could use in research; and what statements, if any, he could make to the media.
Creating a Meaningful Dialogue
Law enforcement behavioral consultants and hostage negotiators have preached the doctrine of dialogue building for some time.(19) However, law enforcement agencies should consider two caveats to dialogue building.(20) First, authorities should approach NRMs only if it appears safe to do so. The second caveat concerns trust-rapport can be established only if the group feels that the department is as good as its word. Broken promises and lies will lead to a complete breakdown in communication. In that event, it would have been better not to have tried to establish a dialogue at all.
For the Garland Police Department, creating an ongoing dialogue with Chen Tao officials and members soon after their arrival stands as perhaps its most effective strategy in peacefully resolving a potentially dangerous situation. When the group first arrived, the department assigned a lieutenant to initiate and maintain contact with members during their stay. This officer used an open, friendly approach. He assured members that the department recognized their rights under the U.S. Constitution and stated that, in fact, it was the department's responsibility to protect these rights. The lieutenant and others met often with Chen Tao of facials to discuss various newspaper articles or interviews that appeared in the media.
In addition, the lieutenant provided a contact number for them to reach him on a 24-hour basis. Relations became so cordial that soon members of the department and Chen Tao were meeting every 2 weeks for dinner at a local restaurant.
The rapport between the group and the department provided many benefits. First, it established a level of trust and made Chen Tao officials and members recognize that the police were, indeed, there to help them. Garland authorities underscored this fact at every meeting or public event by reminding Chen Tao members that the department was there to protect them from individuals who might resent the group or wish to do it harm. Second, the rapport allowed authorities to become so well acquainted with group activities that they probably would have noticed any changes that might have signaled planned violence or suicide.
Finally, the rapport between the group and authorities eventually grew to the extent that officers felt comfortable asking more probing questions, such as whether the group had violent or suicidal intentions, and had confidence in their evaluations of the responses they received.
The department also established communication with two other groups in addition to the Chen Tao movement. The first was the community, which did not know quite what to make of the group. Its presence unsettled many Garland residents. They did not understand the group's different style of dress and behavior, and many feared violence. Throughout the group's stay, the department maintained contact with community members and informed them of investigation developments and contingency plans for the community's well-being.
The department also established an ongoing dialogue with the media. Beginning with the Chen Tao movement's arrival in Garland, media scrutiny proved intense. Reporters and camera crews came from as far away as England, France, Germany, and China to cover the story. As with any major news-breaking event, the Garland Police Department used public information officers to deal with the media. They issued media passes, created press kits, provided interviews, and arranged such logistical considerations as parking and sanitation facilities.
Planning for Potential Problems
As the date approached for God's alleged arrival on earth, the Garland Police Department felt relatively certain that, even if God did not show up as planned, Chen Tao members would not resort to violence or suicide. However, the department decided not to take any chances. It set up an on-site command post and had a special weapons and tactics team available to respond if it appeared that the group would harm itself or others. The department had area child protective services on hand to care for children as nece\ssary. In case the group released poisonous gas, the department had fire department units and paramedics on the scene and had established evacuation routes.
The department also had a judge available to issue search warrants if necessary. Finally, because it feared that helicopter traffic over the area where Chen Tao members lived could pose a safety hazard, the department had requested that the Federal Aviation Administration restrict air traffic if necessary.
All of these plans culminated on the morning of March 31, 1998. Law enforcement officers and the citizens of Garland held their collective breaths. Time passed, and God did not arrive. The situation, however, did not end in tragedy. The Chen Tao leader announced that he obviously had misunderstood God's plans, and members quietly returned to their homes. Eventually, those members who did not return to Taiwan relocated to upstate New York to continue their vigil.
The Garland Police Department put a great deal of time and effort into peacefully resolving the Chen Tao situation. At the end of day on March 31, 1998, the department could take pride in its achievement.
Dealing with new religious movement leaders and their followers stands as one of the most sensitive and difficult tasks that face modern law enforcement agencies. The Garland, Texas, Police Department faced the possibility of such a threat when the Chen Tao religious movement arrived in its community. To safeguard Garland residents, as well as group members themselves, the department gathered accurate information about the religious movement, established a meaningful dialogue with the group's members, mobilized community resources, and planned for the worst. By employing this kind of informed, deliberate decision making and avoiding popular misconceptions about "cults," law enforcement officers may achieve similar success with NRMs that they encounter.
Because new religious movements exhibit many unfamiliar traits, it becomes difficult to distinguish between risk indicators and characteristics that appear strange but are not necessarily dangerous. Several traits common to these groups exist but are not, in and of themselves, danger signals.
Members offer absolute and unquestioning adherence to their leader and the belief system. In the absence of other risk indicators, this does not indicate a propensity toward violence or other criminal activity. Indeed, total devotion is the hallmark of new religious movements.
The group physically segregates itself from others. This also is a common characteristic of many new religious movements and says little about a group's attitude toward viofence or suicide.(25)
Members adopt unfamiliar customs or rituals, which may involve diet, dress, language, or family and social organization.
The presence of some characteristics may indicate that a new religious movement is comparatively stable or is becoming more stable and, hence, less of a danger.
Members take practical steps to plan for the future (e.g., send their children to school, work at permanent jobs, or make medium to long-term investments in commodities or real estate).
The group adopts bureaucratic processes that routinize its affairs (e.g., transcribes its leader's teachings to writing for dissemination or appoints a committee to handle such aspects as outreach, finances, or general management).
When the leader dies, a more conventional style of governance, involving voting or a committee structure, replaces autocratic decision making. Often, this causes outsiders to change their opinion of the group and view it as a religious denomination or mainstream religious organization rather than a new religious movement.
1 The authors gratefully acknowledge Special Agents Alan Brantley and Kenneth Lanning of the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, Special Agent James Duffy, formerly of the FBI's Crisis Negotiation Unit, Drs. Anthony Pinizzotto and John Jarvis of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, Dr. Catherine Wessinger of Loyola University at New Orleans, Louisiana, and Dr. James T. Richardson of the University of Nevada at Reno, Nevada, for sharing their invaluable experience and insight.
2 For a general discussion of cults and cult movements, see J. Gordon Melton, Encyclopedia of American Religions, 5'" ed. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1996).
3 See James R.P. Ogloff and Jeffrey E. Pfeifer, "Cults and the Law: A Discussion of the Legality of Alleged Cult Activities," Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 10, n. 9 (1992): 117, 119; and Jeffrey E. Pfeifer, "Equal Protection for Unpopular Sects," New York University Review ofLaw and Society Change 7, n. 9 (1979): 9-10.
4 J. Dillon and J. Richardson, "The Cult Concept: The Politics of Representation Analysis," Syzygy: Journal of Alternative Religion and Culture 3 (Fall/Winter 1994): 185-196.
5 For a description of structural/demographic features common to cults, see J. Gordon Melton, Encyclopedia of American Religions, 5th ed. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1996); and Philip Lamy, Millennium Rage (New York: Plenum Publishing, 1996).
6 Supra note 2.
7 For an analysis of negative public reactions to NRMs, see David Bromley and Anson Shupe, "Public Reaction Against New Religious Movements" in Cults and New Religious Movements, ed. Marc Galanter (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1989), 305-330.
8 However, a few groups have employed public relations workers for this purpose (Dr. Catherine Wessinger, interview by authors, December 12, 1999).
9 Many scholars contend that individuals cannot be "brainwashed" to act against their wills. See Miriam Karmel Feldman, "The Mind Control Myth: Is Brainwashing All Wet?" Utne Reader 92 (March/April 1999): 14-15; and James T. Richardson and Brock Kilbourne, "Classical and Contemporary Applications of Brainwashing Models: A Comparison and Critique," in The Brainwashing/ Deprogramming Controversy: Sociological, Psychological, Legal and Historical Perspectives, ed. David G. Bromley and James T. Richardson (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1983), 29-45. Other researchers claim that NRMs effectively employ coercive mind control techniques. See Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich, Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995).
10 For a discussion detailing why individuals join NRM groups, see Philip Zimbardo, "What Messages Are Behind Today's Cults?" available from http://www.apa.org/monitorlmay97/cult.html; accessed July 13, 2000.
11 See Saul V. Levine, "Life in the Cults" in Cults and New Religious Movements: A Report of the American Psychiatric Association, ed. Marc Galanter (Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1989), 101-102.
12 The term sociopath or antisocial personality disorder is a clinical diagnosis used by mental health professionals. For law enforcement purposes, sociopaths generally are totally self centered individuals who lack a conscience, do not display remorse for their actions, and do not learn from their mistakes. Law enforcement professionals spend a great amount of time dealing with these individuals, who some believe are responsible for most of the criminal acts committed in society. For further information, see The Sociopath A Criminal Enigma (undated) produced by the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit.
13 For dangerousness typologies relating to militia and extremist groups, see James E. Duffy and Alan C. Brantley, "Militias: Initiating Contact," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July 1997, 22-26; Anthony J. Pinizzotto, "Deviant Social Groups," Law and Order, October 1\996, 75-80; and Catherine Wessinger, "Presentation to the FBI, June 7, 1999"; available from http://www.loyno.edu/~wessing; accessed July 13, 2000. Also, the authors gained valuable information from numerous personal dialogues with Special Agent Alan Brantley.
14 However, if an armed group perceives law enforcement behavior as threatening, even a reactive group could respond with violence or suicide.
15 This movement originated nearly 40 years ago and grew out of a quasi-academic group known as the Research Group of Soul-Light, which had as many as 3,000 members. The present leader, formerly a sociology professor at Chianan College of Pharmacology and Science in Taiwan, reorganized the group around the revelation concerning God's appearance on earth that he received in 1993. See Matthew Goff; "An Historical Overview of the Chen Tao"; available from http://www.channell.com/users/tdaniels/Articles/72-history.html; accessed July 13, 2000.
16 While loyalty to leaders represents an enduring stereotype associated with NRMs, it may vary from group to group. (Dr. James T. Richardson, interview with authors, December 29, 1999).
17 The group first arrived in the United States in 1996 in San Dimas, California. The leader moved the group to Texas upon alleged instructions from God. The members chose Garland because it sounded to them like "Godland." See Ted Daniels, "Chen Tao and Rationalization of Failure"; available from http://www.channell.com/users/tdaniels/Articles/71-chentao.html ; accessed July 13, 2000.
18 Dr. Lonnie Kliever supplied a great deal of beneficial information to the Garland Police Department. For his perspective, see Lonnie Kliever, "Meeting God in Garland: A Model of Religious Tolerance," Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 3, n. 1 (October 1999): 45-53.
19 For the benefits and strategies of communicating with militia groups, see James E. Duffy and Alan C. Brantley, "Militias: Initiating Contact," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July 1997, 22-26; and Anthony J. Pinizzotto, "Deviant Social Groups," Law and Order, October 1996, 75-80.
20 See the previous section on determining risks of NRMs.
21 A certain amount of paranoia is normal among NRM leaders. However, high degrees of paranoia or an increasingly paranoid outlook should raise a red flag. For an in-depth analysis of paranoia in groups, see Robert Robins and Jerrold M. Post, Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997).
22 This illustrates why officers must use their common sense and establish a dialog in interacting with NRM members. While eating and drinking common food and beverages may serve as a rehearsal for suicide, it may act instead as an integral part of a group's religious practices. In Christianity, for instance, parishioners consume wine and bread routinely as part of Communion ceremonies. Law enforcement personnel may, at some point, have to evaluate the purposes of such acts; the best way to do this may be merely to ask group members about it.
23 A good investigative strategy would include determining whether the group in question has fixed upon other dates in the past. If so, how did it respond when those dates passed? A group that has bounced back from past disappointments is less likely to self destruct upon arriving at its next unfulfilled prophecy. Precedents exist for dates marking God's return to pass without incident. Groups can easily explain God's failure to return by claiming that he changed his mind or did return but only "believers" could see him.
24 To protect freedoms of speech and religion, law enforcement agencies should consult their legal advisors before collecting and scrutinizing groups' publications, pronouncements, Web sites, or other material.
25 For a discussion of the circumstances under which physical isolation may assist in propelling a group toward violence, see Kevin M. Gilmartin, "The Lethal Triad: Understanding the Nature of Isolated Extremist Groups," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September 1996, 1- 5.
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