It Wasn't a Compound!

Although it's come to seem natural to call Mt. Carmel Center a "compound," it could just as easily have been called, say, a "complex." So why does everyone call it a compound?

As I write this, the news media is once again filled with stories about the "Branch Davidian compound" in Waco. Critics and defenders of the government alike continually refer to the "compound."

The survivors themselves dislike the term "compound," believing it to be pejorative. Some people believe they are being too sensitive about this term. For instance, the judge who tried the Davidians rejected defense motions that prosecutors not be allowed to use this term, saying it had been used to describe a wide range of structures and was neutral. Also, other terms like "building," "structure," or "center" are awkward, while "home," "residence," or "church" slant in favor of the Davidians. Besides, the Davidians did live in a "compound." Right?

After the government repeatedly referred to Randy Weaver's home as a "compound" at the Ruby Ridge trial, defense lawyer Gerry Spence confronted an agent on the stand with a dictionary that defined a "compound" as a group of buildings enclosed by a fence or barricade. He pointed out that there was no fence or barricade surrounding Randy Weaver's cabin and shed.

The Branch Davidian "compound" actually meets neither of these characteristics: it was a single building, and was not enclosed by a fence. Yet authorities seem to love branding their adversaries as residents of "compounds." Thus, we have the Branch Davidian "compound," the Weaver family "compound," the Montana Freemen "compound," the Republic of Texas embassy "compound," and so forth. Just why do authorities love to use this seemingly neutral term so much, whether it fits the bill or not?

The answer is that the surviving Davidians are right. First, although most people may not be able to rattle off a definition of "compound" off the top of their heads, the idea of enclosure, to either keep others out or residents in, is subconsciously present. Second, the term suggests not just a physical barrier but a psychological one. Most people do not live in a "compound." They live in homes, houses, or apartments. Thus, they find it hard to relate to those who do. The FBI could have called it a "complex," a similar-sounding word that rolls just as easily off the tongue and is more accurate. But many people live in apartment complexes, and many people work in complexes. By using the word "compound," government spokesmen were subtly reinforcing their message that these were strange, bizarre people, different from Us.

Yet this word is used not only by the federal agencies, but by the press. What explains their use of this term? If challenged, they would probably respond that they were using an accurate, neutral term. But its accuracy is dubious. As for objectivity, shouldn't it at least give them pause that they are using nomenclature disliked by one side, but used continuously by the other over more accurate alternatives? Yes, sometimes people do have specious objections to calling a spade a spade, and yes, there are examples of good compounds. In the news now are East Timorese taking refuge in a United Nations compound. However, such compounds are not places where people make homes or put down roots. In the context of Waco, references to the "cult compound" by the authorities were intended to give Mt. Carmel Center a sinister, paramilitary cast. Journalists used the term because, with government spokesmen using it constantly, it came to seem natural. But if those spokesmen had continually called it a "complex," that is the word they would be using.

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