Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Yearning for Sanity: the Community Raid in Texas

April 3 the Texas Rangers raided a fundamentalist Mormon community in west Texas, removing 437 children based on concerns that the children were being neglected or abused. One of the main charges was that underage girls were being forced to marry older men.

[In the last year the FIC has launched a media blog that highlights mention of intentional communities in the media. This raid stirred up a flurry of stories and we’re struggling with issues of sensationalism, negative publicity, and not censoring the news. How do we report this?]

While there is no way for me to determine at this remove what actually was happening at the Yearning for Zion compound (I have no personal knowledge of the group and media reports vary), I have a lot of thoughts about the reports and the societal response.

Did a Wrong Occur?
Our society is predicated on a fundamental right of individuals to make their own lifestyles choices. At the same time, society reserves the right to limit those choices whenever it judges that the individual is doing harm or wrongfully restricting the choices of others. The challenge is discerning with wisdom when that line has been crossed and the appropriate response.

In Texas, the Rangers clearly felt the line had been crossed. If indeed underage girls were being forced into marriages with older men, then I concur. There are laws against this and I agree that the potential for harm (in the dynamic of a 13-year-old marrying a 45-year-old for instance—regardless of whether forced or with consent—the power imbalance is dangerously skewed) outweighs whatever argument might be mustered in favor of pursuing a religious rite. While I don’t believe this practice is inherently wrong, I believe it is inherently dangerous and worthy of banning on that basis.

Was the Response Appropriate?
My understanding is that all the children were removed from the compound in the raid, with no attempt to determine which were being harmed or abused. I imagine that the rationale was that all were deemed at risk once it was determined that the cmty lifestyle was dangerous. However, what is the potential damage to children who are forcibly removed from their parents and cmty “for their own good”? When do reports of one kind of forced action justify force of another kind—this time by the "protectors"?

It seems to me that wholesale removal of all the children is guaranteed to be traumatizing all around, and that
state action could have proceeded much more selectively and with far less disruption to the lives of most of the children.

Was Due Process Observed?
Probably not. It now appears likely that the original report to authorities—which served as the basis for the raid—was a fabrication. The Rangers apparently did not exercise prudence in assessing the veracity of the report. It is not hard to imagine that officials were pleased to have an excuse to step in, and perhaps not too anxious to look very closely at the quality of the evidence.

Regardless of what is eventually found to have happened in the cmty—and I am not condoning illegal or dangerous practices in any way—this haste to act on the part of overzealous Rangers is appalling. This time it didn’t lead to an escalation of violence and tragedy. Back in 1993, with the Branch Davidians at Waco, it did.

Is Yearning for Zion a Cult?
Whenever subgroups live in isolation from others, they tend to be poorly understood and the main society tends to think the worst. (Lack of information always undermines trust.) It can be a Catch-22 in that groups with unconventional beliefs or practices often move to isolate themselves in response to bad interactions after attempting closer association with the main society. Tragically, the isolation they subsequently embrace inadvertently furthers the misunderstandings and diminishes overall tolerance. It’s a downhill slide.

In essence, “cult” is a pejorative label that people apply to others whose practices are unacceptable or abhorrent to the labeler. There is an implication of brainwashing and people being held against their will, yet that rarely happens. People often engage in casuistry of this kind: I don’t understand how a person could reasonably choose to do X; therefore, if a person does X, they are either malevolent, being forced to it, or have been brainwashed. This is bad thinking, and makes no allowance for substantial and incredible variety among worldviews and individual lifestyle choices.

• • •
Do I think the Texas cmty was engaging in practices it shouldn’t have? Probably. Do I think their practices should have been investigated? Perhaps, though I’m not clear there was probable cause. Do I think they are evil (read cult)? No. This rush to judgment and trying others in the court of public opinion is the very thing this country was founded in opposition to. Will FIC report on the media stories? Yes. In the end, we have to let people sort this out for themselves and it is not for us to decide what views are worthy of their attention.

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