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ISSUE 121 VOL 18 PUBLISHED 4/25/2008

Texas overreacts in raid on polygamists

By David Henke
Variety Editor

Friday, April 25, 2008

On April 3, Texas FBI agents raided the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' (FLDS) compound outside of Eldorado, Texas. They responded to a call to a crisis center made by a 16-year-old girl claiming that she was being physically and sexually abused. By April 8, the Texas authorities had removed 419 children from the compound, ranging in age from six months to 17 years.

From there, the news just gets more sinister: FBI investigators found that a number of the teenage girls living at the compound were pregnant, or had recently given birth, and some of the children reported being beaten by adult members of the Church. To make matters worse, inside the FLDS's monolithic white temple investigators found a "sex bed," which was apparently used by middle-aged husbands to have sex for the first time with their underage wives.

Safe to say that the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints creeps me out. The Church's belief in polygamy alone is enough to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, but that's only the tip of the iceberg.

When I think about the criminal history of the Church's leader and "prophet," Warren Jeffs (now serving a prison sentence for two charges as an accomplice to rape), or the fact that Church members routinely patrolled the edge of the FLDS ranch with night-vision goggles and other surveillance equipment, it is all I can do to keep from shuddering. I mean, the FLDS makes the Church of Scientology seem downright friendly by comparison.

But as much as I'd like to criticize the FLDS and their ethically indefensible behavior, I'm not sure that the Texas authorities' reaction was appropriate in this situation. I heartily approve of the investigations looking into the sect's activities -- I think the Church deserves all the scrutiny it gets, but swooping down on the FLDS ranch with SWAT teams and armored personnel carriers and carrying off 533 women and children in buses was not the best plan of action for Texas authorities.

Yes, the raid removed vulnerable children and women from the compound, but it also fractured families. Most of these families are now living in impromptu shelters in nearby San Angelo while they wait for their cases to be processed. The raid also took younger children who were probably not at a high risk of abuse. Those toddlers and infants could've remained in relative safety at the compound with their mothers until some more permanent arrangements could be made.

Finally, removal of the children and their mothers from the compound has already proven to be a mentally harrowing process for the victims. The state of Texas has already brought in a number of mental health experts to help the women and children adjust to life off of the ranch.

According to the "Yearning for Zion" church doctrine, leaving the compound would lead to members' eternal damnation -- so any sense of normalcy in the outside world may be difficult to obtain for the sect members. To complicate matters, many of the children taken into state custody were not able to contact their mothers in the days following the raid.

It's no surprise, then, that the media fallout from the raid was also strong; critics drew comparisons between the state's action and Nazi Germany, and a number of the Church members called for the return of their children in interviews with several major news networks -- though glassy eyes and the unsettling "Stepford Wives" behavior of some of the female interviewees during those interviews probably didn't help their cause.

This isn't the first time children have been forcibly removed from a polygamist community -- in 1953, 263 children were taken from their beds in a night raid on the FLDS town of Short Creek, Ariz. That year, the backlash from the raid drove Arizona governor Howard Pyle out of office. In 1953, as in 2008, the authorities were warranted in their investigation of the FLDS Church, but both times they were too heavy-handed.

This time through, the FBI tried to prevent another Waco tragedy by the application of overwhelming force. Though they succeeded in removing the women and children from the compound without any bloodshed, they severely disrupted the lives of more than 500 people.

Variety Editor David Henke 08 is from Detroit Lakes, Minn. He majors in English and environmental studies.

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